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Putin Wants to Prolong the War. Trump, Tucker, and DeSantis Give Him Reason To.
Russia can't beat Ukraine on the battlefield, but they can keep fighting through 2024, hoping America flips and the West backs off
Russia’s 2023 offensive appears to have culminated, with a lot of casualties and destroyed equipment for little territorial gain. While surely hoping for greater short-term success, the Putin government likely sees itself in a longer-term endurance contest. They might not be able to defeat the Ukrainian military in the field, but if they keep the war going, and keep bombing civilian infrastructure, maybe they can outlast NATO countries’ willingness to send aid, and Ukraine’s will to resist. Then Russia can get a peace deal to its liking, with territorial concessions, and restrictions on Ukraine’s foreign relations.
It might be the only card they have left. Nuclear use is checked by mutual fear of WWIII, and nuclear extortion hasn’t worked. Negotiation is a nonstarter, because Ukraine appears intent on recapturing territory, and won’t accept any agreement that isn’t humiliating for Russia and Putin, globally and domestically.
With battlefield victory, nuclear escalation, and peace talks off the table, prolonging the war is Russia’s best hope. If they can’t get Ukraine to quit soon, they’ll look ahead to the 2024 U.S. presidential election, where the Republican nominee will likely advocate reducing military aid, perhaps even pushing Ukraine to concede. Whatever the reasons for that Republican position, it gives Russia an incentive to keep fighting, at least this year and next.
Russia’s Political War Strategy
At the start last February, Russia aimed for regime change, invading along multiple axes, including thrusts at the capital, Kyiv. Russian intelligence reportedly believed they had infiltrated Kyiv enough that, with the added pressure of invasion, they could collapse the government.
But Ukraine held together, and its military thwarted the attack on Kyiv (largely on their own, before most Western aid arrived). Russia then shifted to a grinding, artillery-heavy attempt to capture Ukraine’s east and south, and has undertaken various actions aimed at breaking the West and Ukraine’s will.
Russia tried blockading the Black Sea coast, cutting off most of Ukraine’s exports. This wouldn’t just choke the Ukrainian economy, it could also cause famine in countries that rely on Ukrainian agricultural products, such as Egypt, which could generate international pressure on Ukraine to settle.
Ukraine thwarted that by sinking Russian ships, including the Black Sea flagship Moskva. Shortly after, Russia accepted a Turkey and UN-brokered deal to allow maritime trade.
As Russia’s 2022 military advances bogged down, then saw reversals in Kharkiv and Kherson, Russia increasingly targeted civilian infrastructure, especially the power grid. That’s a sign of weakness, not strength. If they could use these aerial assets to defeat the Ukrainian military, they would. Instead they bomb apartments, electrical stations, malls, train stations, and hospitals, trying to make Ukraine concede.
And the best way to do that, Russia apparently recognizes, is to isolate Ukraine—to cut off its external supply—by breaking the will of the West. If Russia can prolong the war, it might make Ukraine’s cause appear futile, prompting Ukraine’s democratic partners to question why they’re spending resources helping a country that isn’t even a treaty ally.
That explains Russia’s attempt to extort Europe by cutting off energy resources ahead of winter. But European countries anticipated it, storing up natural gas. And the winter was mild, which limited the impact. (It limited the impact of the attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure too.)
Russia conscripted new soldiers, the Wagner mercenary group recruited more prisoners, but as of this writing they haven’t been able to take their primary target of Bakhmut—Ukraine’s 58th largest city by pre-war population—let alone consolidate control over Donbas. The West has continued supporting Ukraine, even upping aid in the form of tanks.
Russia looks out of options.
Keep Fighting, Hope Things Change
Russia can’t conquer Ukraine by force, at least not as long as Ukraine gets weapons and ammunition from the West. And Putin can’t stop without something he can call a victory. So Russia tries to keep it going, aiming to outlast, hoping something will change.
On this front there are some reasons for Russian optimism, at least enough for anyone looking to tell themselves this plan might just work.
Despite battlefield setbacks last fall, Russia executed successful retreats, saving personnel and equipment. They rushed troops to the front, formed new lines, and prevented Ukraine’s advances from becoming a rout.
A fall mobilization yielded about 300,000 recruits, and another push this year aims for 400,000 more. They might not be well trained or equipped, they might not be able to take territory, but they can man defensive positions, work in transportation, and provide the numbers Russia needs to keep fighting.
They’ve built fortifications in the parts of Ukraine they occupy to stop Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which is expected sometime this spring. Even if Ukraine achieves a success on par with Kharkiv or Kherson, Russia can be reasonably confident they can make Ukraine forces pay a price, stabilize the line, and conscript more troops to hold it, or counterattack if Ukraine overextends.
Russia can’t keep doing that indefinitely, there are political costs. Each draft adds to anger against the government, and requires resources to administer. While the first “partial mobilization” focused on racial minorities in the east, additional drafts will increasingly touch Moscow and St. Petersburg, and wealthier, more influential families.
But Russia likely thinks they can do it a few more times. A new class reaches draft age each year, and with about 3.5 times the population, Russia’s recruiting pool is larger than Ukraine’s. As long as the Kremlin thinks the political costs of failing in Ukraine outweigh the political costs of another round of mobilization, they’ll keep doing it.
Russia likely also gained some confidence seeing recent leaks of US intelligence assessments showing America is skeptical that Ukraine’s upcoming offensive will yield major gains, worries that Ukraine will face ammunition shortages, and sees possible weak points in Ukraine’s air defense. Russia could take that as a sign that its endurance contest strategy will work if they keep at it.
But Russia’s biggest reason for hope, Putin’s most plausible lifeline, comes from the Republican Party.
Hold on Through 2024
NATO democracies may have surprised Russia and its boosters by holding together and backing Ukraine, but they’re still democracies, subject to dissent and elections. Russia hopes Western publics grow weary of the war, and elect new leaders who cut support. Then maybe Russia can defeat the weakened Ukrainian military, or Ukraine becomes so scared they make concessions.
The best bet for that is America. French president Emmanuel Macron seems more open to negotiations than other Western leaders, but France was also the first to send light tanks to Ukraine, and their next presidential election isn’t until 2027. The next British and German national elections will be in 2025 or sooner, but the current leaders back Ukraine, and the most prominent opposition leaders are, if anything, more supportive. Meanwhile, most European countries that border Russia and/or were part of the Soviet Union (Finland, Poland, Estonia, etc.) are adamantly supporting Ukraine, fearing they could be next.
But the US is Ukraine’s most powerful backer, and the linchpin of NATO. If America backs off, Europeans will be less confident, and more likely to push Ukraine to make concessions.
So Russia must find solace in the rhetoric from US President Joe Biden’s most prominent opponents. Former president Donald Trump, the current front runner for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, originally gushed that Putin’s attack on Ukraine was “genius” and “savvy.” As Russia’s invasion faltered, Trump stopped openly cheering it, instead aping Russian propaganda about how supporting Ukraine will cause “an all-out nuclear World War III” and promising to make “peace” by pushing Ukraine to give Russia what it wants.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson, possibly the most influential conservative pundit in America, is so sympathetic to Russian arguments, and so outspoken in opposition to American support for Ukraine, that Russian state media uses clips from his show. Carlson sent a questionnaire to Republican presidential hopefuls, apparently seeking anti-Ukraine answers. Florida governor Ron DeSantis obliged, dismissing the conflict as a mere “territorial dispute” that is not one of America’s “many vital national interests,” and falsely casting the detailed, limited, Congressionally-authorized transfers from America’s military stockpiles as a “blank check.”
DeSantis got criticism from what’s left of the Republican Party’s Reaganite wing and partially walked it back, acknowledging that the war is Putin’s fault. But he still aped the Kremlin’s war rationalizations about helping “ethnic Russians” in eastern Ukraine.
While Republican voters opposed Russia’s invasion at the start, and some old-school figures still do, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Trump-Carlson perspective gradually won over a majority of them. With polls showing Trump or DeSantis the favorite candidate of about 75 percent of Republicans, the GOP primary contest will likely push the party further into an anti-Ukraine stance.
Anyone who gets a major party nomination has a realistic shot at the presidency. So it’s a live possibility that, in less than two years, the United States will flip from backing Ukraine to trying to weaken Ukraine and pressuring them to concede. Seeing that potential lifeline on the horizon, why would Russia stop fighting now?