Report: The BEARR Trust Autumn Lecture

Putin’s War: What’s the Endgame?

Ross Gill, BEARR Trustee
December 2022

A former senior editor at The Economist, and now an expert commentator on Eastern and Central Europe at The Times, Edward Lucas has for many years warned of the danger that Vladimir Putin’s regime presents to its own people and its neighbourhood. In The New Cold War, published in 2008, he described the Kremlin’s use of energy blockades and military incursions against its neighbours, warning of the world’s indecisive response.

14 years later, and seven months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Edward gave The BEARR Trust’s Autumn Lecture, looking ahead to how the war might conclude. You can watch a full recording of Edward’s lecture on our YouTube channel here.

For many in the West, Putin’s invasion came as a surprise. But from the perspective of an observer of Russia’s policies towards its neighbours over the past three decades, it has only been a surprise to those who have not been paying attention.

Living in Tallinn in the early 1990s, Edward observed that while opinion in Western Europe and North America saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as representing the defeat of Russian imperialism, for those in Estonia, it had simply gone into temporary retreat. In an early sign of the revanchism to come, Sergei Karaganov, an advisor to both Yeltsin and Putin, articulated the doctrine that Russia should maintain influence in its ‘near abroad’ by maintaining a special responsibility for the defence of Russian speakers in neighbouring countries. This was seen as a clear threat in Estonia and the other Baltic states, prompting Estonian president Lennart Meri to warn in a speech in Hamburg in 1994 that Russia was  on a trajectory of “repression at home and aggression abroad” (a young Vladimir Putin, present at the head of a delegation from St Petersburg, led a walkout of the conference in response).

But there was little willingness in the West to listen to these warnings: commercial and political relations with Moscow were prioritised over those in Eastern and Central Europe who were dismissed as local nationalists, and there was optimism about the Yeltsin and early Putin governments. Speaking with German government officials in 2005, Edward found that warnings about the risks of dependency on Russian energy supplies were laughed off, and that there was little serious concern expressed about the dangers of information operations and political interference.

Edward describes this Western stance as a form of “orientalist arrogance”: a faith in the better understanding of observers in Berlin, Washington and London over those in Tallinn and Warsaw. This caused every escalation by Russia – including the 2014 occupation of Crimea and the Donbas – to be treated softly by the West, giving Putin a further green light. In that context, Edward argues that Western leaders have a moral responsibility for the present situation – although there have been few apologies for previous failures to act.

The three fronts of the conflict

Edward describes the war in Ukraine as being fought on three fronts: the military front in Ukraine itself; the ‘Moscow front’ and the playing out of the political and economic costs to the regime at home; and the ‘Western front’ and the fight for public opinion. All of these intersect and will determine the war’s ‘endgame’.

On the Moscow front, the Russian political system is under it greatest strain since Putin took power. Over the past twenty years, Russians have enjoyed unprecedented personal and economic (if not political) freedoms, underpinned by general stability. This has been the foundation of Putin’s legitimacy. But these are increasingly undermined by the economic and psychological strain of war, especially as mobilisation brings the war directly to ordinary Russians.  

In turn, this has widened the space for debate in Russia, as more public figures have felt able to voice criticism of the regime – for example Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s opposition to the extension of mobilisation, and the ongoing machinations of figures like Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin. This in turn undermines the view that Putin “keeps everything under control”, and serves as a reminder that he will not be around forever.

These difficulties on the ‘Moscow front’ are all compounded by the fact that the war on the ground is not going in Russia’s favour, as Russian supply chains become degraded, and retreat looms in the Donbas.

On the ‘Western front’ , public opinion in Europe and North America remains very firmly with Ukraine. In the US, Republican gains in Congress are unlikely to lead to significant shift away from military support for Ukraine. Despite the energy crisis and its economic impacts, European support also appears solid: indeed, ‘pro-Russian’ sentiment in parts of the Balkans and on the far left and far right in in Germany has been fairly ineffectual. Maintaining this support is crucial: Ukrainian resistance is fundamentally dependent on Western (mainly American) weapons supplies, and on international economic support.

Looking to the ‘endgame’

What are the routes to the end of the conflict? Edward criticises the “lazy realpolitik” expressed by some that all wars end in negotiations and that eventually a settlement will be reached. Putin’s best realistic outcome is to put enough pressure on the West through the weaponisation of energy to create an “arm twisted” ceasefire in Ukraine that would enable Russia to retain its territorial gains. This would be a bad outcome, demonstrating the weakness of the West to counter future threats, and undermining its credibility – although it is unlikely given the recent progress of the war and Western solidity so far.

More likely is that Russia may be forced to negotiate from a weaker stance if Ukraine threatens Russia’s position in Crimea and there is no realistic prospect of victory. In that case, it is less clear what would incentivise negotiations from the Ukrainian perspective, although the costs of reconstructing and reintegrating some occupied territories may be extremely challenging, politically as well as economically.

In any case, any negotiated settlement with Russia is unlikely with Putin still at the helm: this “is likely to be Putin’s last winter”, and in the context of effective Russian defeat, Putin will be a useful scapegoat for the next leader. However, a wounded Russia will continue to present a major challenge: a new, perhaps militarised, government, will still be a threat, including beyond military operations (witness for example the recent sabotage of the Nordstream pipeline and undersea cables). And while the invasion of Ukraine may have demonstrated much Russian military incompetence, Russia has still managed to occupy an area larger than the entire Baltic states. A key challenge for Western governments – and one that is being given insufficient attention – is how a new, probably hostile, Russian government should be faced, recognising that a transition away from an ‘imperialist’ view of Russia’s near abroad is likely to take many years and probably more than one leadership change.

The war is also shaping Ukraine as a nation, acting as the “crucible of Ukrainian identity”. The impressive civil society response has demonstrated national unity, and the years since 2014 have seen a new generation of leaders. But the risk of victory accompanied by economic ruin and conflict between ‘victors’ and ‘collaborators’ remains high, underlining the importance of thinking now about reconstruction.  

In the meantime, continued international support for Ukraine remains vital. Ultimately, the defence of Ukraine is a defence of values: whether a European country has the right to choose its own way forward and whether its people have the right to live in the peace and security that others further west take for granted.

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