Putin, secure in power, is preparing for a long and exhausting war

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin is calling the war in Ukraine a turning point as Russia finally turned against the West – but some members of the elite fear he has subjected his country to a long and fruitless loss of lives and resources.

When the Russian president ordered troops into Ukraine on February 24, he expected to win quickly, secure a place in history alongside the tsars, and teach the United States a lesson in reviving Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He was wrong. The war has killed or wounded hundreds of thousands; Russia and Russians are defamed in the West as aggressors; and its army now faces a resilient Ukraine backed by an expanding US-led NATO military alliance.

A senior Russian source with knowledge of decision-making said Putin’s hopes of polishing his reputation have been dashed.

“In the future, it will be even more difficult and costly for both Ukraine and Russia,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Economic losses of this magnitude are not worth a few territories conquered.”

The source said he believed many of the elite shared his view, although saying so publicly would prompt swift retribution.

Putin says Moscow is locked in an existential struggle with an arrogant West that wants to partition Russia and its vast resources – a narrative Ukraine and the West reject.

Despite all the geopolitical shockwaves Putin has caused, he still has no serious rival for power, according to five senior Russian sources close to decision-making. And with all public dissent being repressed, the 70-year-old need not fear the March 2024 presidential election.

However, the full strategic and economic consequences of the war may linger for some time to come.

“I don’t believe in a major offensive or in the possibility of a Russian victory against the entire civilized world,” said a second senior source close to the Kremlin, who also declined to be named.

The source said Russia is at a disadvantage in both military technology and motivation, but the war will last “a very long time”.


Even one of the few skeptics whose criticism has been tolerated so far, a pro-war ex-commander of pro-Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, sees no clear result.

“We are in an absolutely paradoxical situation,” said Igor Girkin, who was convicted by an international court of aiding and abetting the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine.

“We have a completely incompetent leadership, formed directly by a president who is immutable and without alternative. But a change of president would lead to rapid disaster.”

For Girkin, that would mean military defeat, civil war, and Russia’s submission.

His frustration centers on the secrecy, poor communications, and ineffective command structure that have led to a string of humiliating military defeats at the hands of Russia’s far smaller neighbors.

But beyond the battlefield, Russia is paying for an unexpectedly wide and protracted war while suffering the heaviest Western sanctions.

Forced to take the unpopular step of mobilizing 300,000 young men to work last fall, Putin prompted hundreds of thousands to flee Russia.

Moscow has lost a large chunk of the European gas market that the Soviet Union and Putin had captured for decades. Russian oil production rose in 2022, but Moscow has announced a production cut for March, most likely in response to a western cap on the price of its refined products.

Western firms and investors have bid to exit, leading Russia to court former rival China as an investor and buyer of its oil.

Its $2.1 trillion economy – about a twelfth the size of the United States – is expected to grow 0.3% this year, well below the growth rates of China and India, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The current account surplus has narrowed and the budget deficit is widening, despite heavy drawdowns from a bad-weather fund.

“This war is the most momentous activity that Putin has ever undertaken, and certainly the most momentous venture for Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at RAND Corporation who worked at the State Department.

But when Russia’s business leaders – including many of Putin’s former KGB colleagues – object to the way things are going, they do so privately.


Much will depend on the battlefield, where the front line stretches 850 km (530 miles). Neither side has air superiority. Both have suffered massive casualties.

The West is delivering more advanced, longer-ranged weapons, having provided tens of billions of dollars in weapons, shells, missiles and intelligence. But his tolerance for that expense may not be endless.

Putin may ultimately be playing for time, said US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow who brought messages from President Joe Biden to Russia.

“The next six months, it seems to me, and that is our assessment at the CIA, will be critical,” Burns told the Georgetown School of Foreign Service on Feb. 2.

He said the reality of the battlefield would pierce “Putin’s hubris” by showing him that his army could not advance, only lose territory already conquered.

Some within Russia’s elite disagree — saying the West, not Russia, will lose.

“The president believes he can win in Ukraine,” a senior Russian source said. “Of course he cannot lose the war. Victory will be ours.”

Neither the Kremlin nor the West have specified what victory or defeat in Ukraine would entail, although Moscow is far from even controlling the four Ukrainian provinces it has unilaterally declared Russia. Ukraine wants to reclaim every inch of its territory.

And this gives little reason to believe that the war will end soon.

“Putin will remain in power to the end unless he dies or there is a coup – neither of which is likely at the moment,” said a senior Western diplomat.

“Putin cannot win the war, but he knows he cannot lose.”

(Reported by Reuters; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kevin Liffey)


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