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Opinion Putin’s long game in Ukraine may not play out as he predicts

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 8. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP)
5 min

President Vladimir Putin is betting that a long war in Ukraine will exhaust his adversaries sooner than it does Russia. He might be right, but there are ways for the United States and its allies to confound this strategy.

The West’s trump card is its fundamental economic strength — if it can summon the will to exercise it. President Biden said on Feb. 24, the day the war began, that he would “impose severe costs on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time. … We’re going to impair their ability to compete in a high-tech 21st-century economy.”

This threat of an ever-tightening squeeze on Russia’s economy was underlined by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 25: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks in similar terms of winning a “very protracted” conflict that could last years.

But the West has never been very good at strategic patience. And you can sense the worry among U.S. and European officials this summer that the Russians, inured to suffering, will be able to wait us out on the battlefield in Ukraine and in evading sanctions at home. The longer the war lasts, the better Russia’s chances will become, according to this increasingly widespread assessment. The West, it seems, is playing for a bloody stalemate, at best.

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So how could the West reverse the pessimism of July so that, by wintertime, it’s Russia that is feeling the chill rather than Ukraine? The wisest answer is to enforce those economic sanctions so that they grip Russia like a steel vise. That will compound Russia’s greatest strategic weakness: that its forces are stretched very thin across a vast terrain.

The best evidence that sanctions are working, albeit slowly, comes from Russian officials themselves. “The situation is not easy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged last month. Herman Gref, the head of Sberbank, Russia’s largest, warned: “We may need around a decade to return [the] economy to the 2021 levels.” He told journalists recently that cargo shipments to Russia had fallen sixfold because of Western sanctions.

“We’re playing the long game, too,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told me on Thursday. The United States assembled a coalition of three dozen countries to support the sanctions, she noted, with this satisfying result: Exports of semiconductors to Russia have fallen 74 percent compared with a year ago. “You can’t sustain a modern military without semiconductors,” Raimondo observed.

Because of high energy prices, Russia still has cash. But it’s growing harder for Moscow to buy what it needs because of Western export controls. A senior Commerce Department official told me that U.S. exports to Russia of proscribed products — basically anything that’s needed for the Russian military, technology companies or the energy sector — have declined 95.9 percent by value compared to a year ago.

The Biden administration might be overly optimistic about the effect of sanctions. But a study last month by the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows significant impact. Using export data from 54 countries (which accounted for 90 percent of Russia’s imports last year), they found that the sanctioning countries’ exports to Russia have fallen 60 percent since the second half of 2021 — and that exports from non-sanctioning countries have fallen by 40 percent.

There is some backfilling through front companies and corrupt intermediaries, but it’s less than expected. “We have not seen attempts by any country to do an end run around our export controls, including China and Iran,” Raimondo told me.

Foreign support for Russian technology and communications companies is gradually evaporating. Ericsson and Nokia have curtailed operations there; more surprising, so has Chinese cellphone giant Huawei. Microsoft isn’t just halting its business in Russia; it’s actively working to subvert Russian cyberattacks.

The Russian military is losing equipment rapidly, and replacements won’t be easy. According to published Ukrainian reports (hardly unbiased but worth noting), Russia has halted or limited tank production at Uralvagonzavod Corporation and at Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, and it has halted production of surface-to-air missiles at Ulyanovsk Mechanical Plant. Major Russian shipyards have also been affected.

Sanctions “have practically broken all the logistics in our country,” according to Russian Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev. Take aviation: The United States and Europe have banned parts or services for the several hundred Boeing and Airbus jets operating in Russia, forcing Russian airlines to sharply curtail flights and cannibalize their fleets. A European Union aviation regulator said last month he was “very worried” about safety of these Western jets in Russia.

Let’s imagine that somehow, despite the sanctions, Russia staggers on with its bloody assault of Ukraine. What then? To think about Putin’s potential problems, just look at a map. Russia is the largest country in the world, by far. To support his reckless, illegal war in Ukraine, Putin has stripped forces from the Far East, the Baltic, the vast underbelly that borders South Asia. He has a country that’s in slow-motion collapse, and too few people to protect it.

Putin plays his hand boldly. But he’s holding fewer high cards than it might appear.