March 18, 2024

The Hill


Almost overnight, pundits and analysts have begun singing a very different tune. Until recently, Ukraine was clearly winning and Russia was clearly losing. Then, suddenly, after Ukraine admitted in November that its counteroffensive had failed, it became clear to all that Ukraine couldn’t win and Russia couldn’t lose.

Now, everyone from Pope Francis to Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán to Sen. J. D. Vance (R-Ohio) to Vladimir Putin is absolutely persuaded that a Russian victory is inevitable and that Ukraine would be better off negotiating now before it loses still more territory, or even its sovereignty.

The defeatist argument basically rests on the view that time is on Russia’s side. Since it has more of everything, Russia can simply pound away, lose thousands of soldiers and just wait for Ukraine’s bullets to run out, its morale to vanish. Later rather than sooner, Ukraine will be enervated, and even though Russia may be equally enervated, Ukraine, having less of everything, will simply have to give up — or as the Pope euphemistically put it, “have the courage of the white flag.” But that view is wrong, and there are several reasons why time is on Ukraine’s side.

Russia is taking enormous losses. According to current American estimates, some 300,000 Russians have been killed or wounded. Great Britain says it’s 355,000. Ukrainians put the figure at 425,000. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said 180,000 Russians have been killed, and 31,000 Ukrainians. Whatever the exact number, it’s clear that Russia is being bled dry and its armed forces are being severely degraded.

Small wonder, as patriotic Russian bloggers openly admit, that there is discontent among frontline Russian soldiers. Desertions are on the rise, and would be higher were it not for the extremely punitive consequences that failure to escape produce. Small wonder as well that the mothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends of the soldiers are openly demanding that their menfolk be brought back home.

Russians may or may not be passive by nature and unwilling to follow in Alexei Navalny’s footsteps, but even they, like all people everywhere, have limits to what they will put up with. The tens of thousands who attended Navalny’s funeral and who took part in the “noon against Putin” demonstrations on March 17, the hundreds of thousands who supported Boris Nadezhdin’s brief presidential run, and the thousands of Bashkirs who took to the streets are all evidence of the fact that something is changing within the hearts and minds of Russians. Skeptics should remember that the mass movements that rocked the USSR in the late 1980s all began with small gatherings of dissidents and their supporters.

In any case, the longer the war takes, the more Russian soldiers will die, the angrier their women will become and the more likely will the population be to say, “We’ve had enough.”

The second reason is economic. Contrary to the views of many Western analysts, as well as of the Economist magazine (which argued recently that “Russia’s economy once again defies the doomsayers”), the Russian economy is heading toward a crisis. As the Russian economist Vladimir Milov and the Yale University economist Jeffrey Sonnenfeld have shown, GDP has grown only because massive amounts of money have been invested in the military-related sectors. Those sectors that concern the needs of everyday citizens are underfunded and experiencing negative growth. To make things worse, the amounts being invested in the former sectors are declining.

Russia is already running a huge budget deficit, which it will only be able to cover by nationalizing profit-making industries and/or raising taxes. The former measure will drain the economy, while the latter will impoverish the masses. As Sonnenfeld and his collaborator Steven Tian have argued, “Russia’s economic resilience is nothing but a Potemkin façade, sustained not through genuine economic productivity but rather through shaking down the entire country for pennies to direct towards war.”

Milov emphasizes that profits merely enrich the already rich as well as Putin and his cronies. There is no reason to believe that the economy will suddenly shed its similarities with a Mafia empire, so we may expect the economy to continue to weaken, the people to continue to be squeezed and the corrupt fat cats to continue to get fatter and more corrupt. Once again, the longer the war takes, the worse things will get for the people of Russia and the regime.

Unsurprisingly, in light of the enormous number of dead and wounded and the growing economic malaise, Putin has little other than coercion to rely on to elicit societal compliance. His fabulous showing in the presidential elections — he supposedly garnered 88 percent of the vote — is too preposterously high to give him genuine legitimacy. Hence, the Navalny murder, the bizarre legislation forbidding homosexuality, the crackdown on all forms of even potential opposition.

Coercion may work in the short run, but Putin knows that time isn’t on his side. Thus, his recent attempts to persuade the world that he really wants a ceasefire. The irony is that he means it. A ceasefire would freeze Russia’s ill-gotten territorial gains, enable Putin to lick his wounds and re-arm, and put off the day when the writing on the wall will be visible to all. Putin needs to temporize, precisely because time is what he needs — and time is what he doesn’t have.

In contrast, time is on Ukraine’s side. It needs to survive the next few months, when Russia may intensify its attacks and things could get very complicated. Since Russia lacks the capacity to defeat Ukraine in so short a time, Ukraine will survive and continue destroying the Black Sea Fleet, downing Russian airplanes and preparing for a deadly assault on the Kerch Bridge.

Even if the U.S. Congress doesn’t come through with a $60 billion aid package — and the prognosis for continued aid now looks better than it did a few weeks ago — there are alternatives. Russia’s foreign assets may be redirected toward the victim of its aggression; the

Europeans may be able to fill some of the gaps Congress will have created. A Trump presidency would complicate things for Ukraine, but it wouldn’t help Russia win.

Putin and his regime have weapons, but they can’t sit on them and they can’t eat them. They’re good for killing Ukrainians and jailing Russians, but they can’t save a regime from its fatal flaws.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”