“The battle for Donbas will remind you of the Second World War,” Ukraine’s foreign minister told NATO earlier this month. Now Ukrainian and Russian forces are gearing up for the impending conflict in eastern Ukraine—a new and likely decisive phase of the current war that will give Russia the opportunity to rebound after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv. Yet even as Russia has the chance to make gains, there’s a growing recognition of all the country has lost—on the battlefield, at home, and globally. The Kremlin recently acknowledged “significant losses of troops,” as the news of their deaths makes its way to their families. (Russia’s most recent official estimate put its casualty count at 1,351, but according to NATO—more than three weeks ago—Russia had already lost between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers.) Meanwhile, people are emigrating from Russia in record numbers—especially young, educated urban people—as the country’s economy reels from Western sanctions. What do these losses mean for the country and its future?
Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the co-director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program. As Miller sees it, Russia may end up taking more territory in Ukraine, maybe even achieving something it can call victory. But the evident shortcomings of Russia’s military—now on display for all the world to see—are diminishing the credibility of any future threats Moscow could make regionally. And the economic damage Russia is sustaining will limit its ability to project power over the long term globally. At the same time, it’s among the more open questions of the moment, to Miller, whether the invasion of Ukraine has injected enough uncertainty and instability into Russian politics to lead to a domestic political crisis—or what timeline such a crisis might unfold on.
Graham Vyse: What do we know about Putin’s risk calculation when he started this war?
Chris Miller: If you’d put yourself in Moscow’s information space in late February, a few things would have stood out to you: First, Russia has a very good military track record over the past two decades. It achieved military objectives in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership had plenty of reason to think their military was capable of following orders, executing objectives, and winning limited wars.
Second, if you’d listened to Russian state media, you’d been hearing about corruption and domestic conflicts in Ukraine, the oligarchy there, and the Ukrainian government oppressing people who speak Russian in Ukraine there. There’d been an assumption not only that Ukraine isn’t a real state—in terms of having a claim to sovereignty and territorial integrity—but also that it isn’t a functional state. This led the Russian leadership to think a war would be relatively straightforward—because Ukraine was supposedly divided and inept.
Third, the Russian leadership believed Western influence in Ukraine was growing—in a political and military sense—and that Ukraine’s military modernization process was underway, which worried Russian leaders.
The Russians thought this war would be over in a matter of days—that there would be some casualties and equipment destroyed but that it would be straightforward. The West probably would have imposed one round of economic sanctions. The Russians weren’t crazy to think this, either; their war in Georgia lasted five days. The U.S. promised, emphatically and repeatedly, that it wouldn’t intervene militarily in this war. Had Moscow executed a better war plan, it’s not implausible that they could have had a lot more success in the early days of the conflict.
Vyse: At what point would Moscow have realized things weren’t going to plan?