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Leon Aron

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Putin’s promise of a long war might be hollow threat

May 9

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With the United States Congress finally passing another major defensive aid package and France now threatening to send its own armed forces in to defend Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is promising his people that Russia is prepared to fight a long, protracted war for however long it takes. But how realistic is that promise?

Straight Arrow News contributor Leon Aron takes a look at the Russian economy and current trends to forecast whether or not Russia is, in fact, prepared to fight a much longer war in Ukraine.

While Ukraine is being ravaged by Russian bombs and missiles, the Kremlin is telling the world and the Russian people that it could indefinitely fight what Vladimir Putin calls a “long war.” But could it, really?

Putin’s game is to have enough in blood and treasure to pay for the war while preserving social peace at home and waiting for a breakdown in Ukraine’s morale and for “Ukraine fatigue” to set in the West.

He has been successful so far at home. But the mole of war is burrowing day and night into the Kremlin’s stores of money and men. A day of war costs the Kremlin an estimated $300 million.

Although a great deal of this amount has been covered by oil and gas sales, in order to pay for a huge expansion of the military-industrial complex, Putin had to withdraw $38 billion last year from the National Welfare Fund, Russia’s piggy bank of last resort.

The civilian economy is being starved for investment and workers. The funding for education, health care and utilities maintenance has been slashed. Taxes are set to be raised, and inflation is heating up, especially for the key staples of most Russians such as eggs, sugar and chicken. And then there are the Western sanctions.

While Ukraine is being ravaged by Russian bombs and missiles, the Kremlin is telling the world and the Russian people that it could indefinitely fight what Vladimir Putin calls a “long war.” But could it, really?

Putin’s game is to have enough in blood and treasure to pay for the war while preserving social peace at home and waiting for a breakdown in Ukraine’s morale and for “Ukraine fatigue” to set in in the West.

He has been successful so far at home. But the mole of war is burrowing day and night into the Kremlin’s stores of money and men.

A day of war costs the Kremlin an estimated 300 million dollars. Although a great deal of this amount has been covered by oil and gas sales, in order to pay for a huge expansion of the military industrial complex, Putin had to withdraw $38 billion last year from the National Welfare Fund, Russia’s piggy bank of last resort.

The civilian economy is being starved for investment and workers. The funding for education, healthcare and utilities maintenance has been slashed. Taxes are set to be raised, and inflation is heating up, especially for the key staples of most Russians such as eggs, sugar, and chicken.

And then there are the Western sanctions. Think of the Russian economy and society as a patient strapped to two oxygen hoses. One carries oil and gas revenues and the other consumer goods and technology, especially defense-related items, such as semiconductor chips and machine-tools.

Sanctions are like a heavy foot on both hoses: not blocking oxygen entirely but gradually constricting the flow, degrading the Russian economy and straining people’s lives. Shortages and breakdowns are multiplying: tires, printing paper, and cellular towers, to name a few. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, last summer saw the shortage of gasoline and diesel fuel.

With most of the Russian commercial airline fleet leased from abroad, the sanctions are causing problems with spare parts and maintenance. Last year there were over 180 plane accidents and malfunctions – triple the previous year’s number.

As to the supply of men, Russia’s human wave attacks in Ukraine result in a World War I-like attrition rate, with an estimated 50 thousand killed or wounded every six months.

A steady stream of cannon fodder is needed. But while enormous sums are being spent on signup bonuses for volunteers and although soldiers’ salaries are orders of magnitude higher than the national average, the Kremlin has been forced to continue conscripting prisoners. Murderers, rapists, Satanists and cannibals were pardoned by Putin’s decrees after six months in Ukraine.

To reach Putin’s goal of a 1.3-million strong armed force, at least 300,000 men have to be drafted and another national mobilization is looming. It is going to be very unpopular at a time when the wives and mothers of drafted reservists are beginning to demand their discharge after two years in the trenches.

Wars of attrition are won or lost as much on the streets back home as on the battlefield, and two can play a waiting game.

If the West gives the heroic Ukrainian soldiers and civilians what they need to wear down the aggressor, the game’s outcome is far from predetermined.

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