April 10, 2024

Russia’s Slow-Killing Poison

Destroyed Russian military machinery and Ukrainian civilian vehicles were displayed near St. Mykhailivsky Cathedral in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 5, 2024, during the Russian invasion.
Destroyed Russian military machinery and Ukrainian civilian vehicles were displayed near St. Mykhailivsky Cathedral in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 5, 2024, during the Russian invasion.

It is not true that Russia has at its disposal an inexhaustible Soviet arsenal of weapons or an endless ability to recruit and train new men. Therefore, it is uncertain whether Russia will be able to continue the war for more than 2-3 years under such conditions. At the same time, this means that the same 2-3 years will be difficult for Ukraine, especially the present one, argued Dr András Rácz in his interview with Diplomacy.

Around this time in 2023, we were looking forward to the Ukrainian counter-offensive to begin in the spring or summer. In 2024, Russia again seems to be in a much more favourable position, at least partially due to its economic performance. What is it that we didn’t know about the Russian economy that allowed it to prove itself so resilient and adaptive?

When it comes to the overall resilience of the Russian economy, one needs to see that on the macroeconomic level, Russia has been managed by very serious professionals, such as Head of Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina or people in the Finance Ministry. The system is still able to run smoothly albeit at a high price, indeed. The price Russia has to pay, however, does not have an immediate destructive effect — it’s more like a slow-killing poison.

First, let’s take, for example, Russia’s GDP data. This is something which Alexandra Prokopenko described as “military Keynesianism.” By pouring immense state resources into the defence sector and the armed forces, including by paying the soldiers’ wages and paying compensation to the families of the killed ones, they can actually generate purchasing power. This purchasing power then, of course, boosts the GDP data, and so does military production. But this kind of very high — surprisingly high — level of GDP requires a constant inflow of massive state resources.

The second thing about this Russian economic performance is that they basically pay the price in rubles for the US dollar scores. One may remember that before the war, the exchange rate was around 38-35 Russian rubles for a US dollar; nowadays, it’s 85-93 rubles per dollar, which means that basically, they are inflating away the population’s savings. As long as you can export oil and receive your income in US dollars while paying domestic salaries in rubles, everything seems to work. However, this only works in the short run. Moscow is still dependent on importing plenty of non-Russian technology for which it has to pay in US dollars. Hence, these harmful effects will kick in in the medium and long run.

The third thing is that this military Keynesianism has its limits. The state resources — that they have been pouring into the defence sector — are missing from everywhere else, including infrastructure, education, environmental protection, culture, etc. In the short run, this is sustainable. Yet, in the medium and long run, these harmful effects will start piling up and are likely to have several cumulative unforeseen ramifications.

Another factor which we did not foresee was the ammunition import from North Korea. North Korea has supplied Russia with at least 1 million ammunition, possibly even more, and there are developed plans to further deepen the cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow. This is something which was not yet on the table last spring, at least not in open sources.

Despite being the most sanctioned country in the world right now, having claimed the title from Iran and North Korea, Russia still managed to not only successfully avoid an economic collapse but also to fund the war effort, and not ration ammunition and weapons as Ukraine is forced to do. Do sanctions even work?

Yes, absolutely, sanctions do work. When it comes to the effect of the sanctions, I think it was not realistic, even for a single moment, to expect the Russian economy to collapse. Moreover, one may also ask the question of whether we want to see a collapsing economy of a nuclear superpower. I’m not entirely sure that we do. Instead of a collapse, what’s more realistic to achieve is a slow but steady degradation. And this degradation is ongoing.

The most recent proof is that just on 29 February, the Russian government announced it was suspending the export of gasoline abroad entirely for six months, starting already on 1 March. Yes, the four allied countries — Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia — were exempted. But every other foreign partner of Russia, who used to import gasoline from the Russian Federation, learned the news on 29 February that from 1 March, there would be no fuel supplies for six months. This is extreme: Russia gave its partners no time to adapt their supply and import chains. And the reason why Russia has suspended its gasoline export is exactly because of the sanctions.

Sanctions have resulted in serious problems in the Russian oil refinery sector: it is increasingly problematic to get spare parts; maintenance cycles take more time; and breakdowns are more and more frequent. Moreover, due to the sanctions, it is much harder to repair the damage caused by Ukrainian drone strikes, which further decreases the overall output of the Russian oil sector. Should Ukraine continue these attacks, the negative effects of sanctions on Russia’s oil industry would become even more visible.

Yes, sanctions do work. Look at the battlefield and the weapons that Russians deploy: they still have some modern T-90 tanks, but most of what they use are reactivated, ex-Soviet stockpiles because this is the maximum that they are able to produce. On the battlefield, the Russian armed forces increasingly rely on the reactivated Soviet weapons. This is not because they are sparing the high-tech weapons for some other purpose. There is a popular Russian narrative that they are not really waging the war, that this is half effort, and that should Russia put its full weight into the war, the whole thing would come to an end. No, it’s not true. This is the full weight of Russia which they put into the war effort, and that is why we see 60-year-old tanks on the battlefield, the T62s and T62Ms. Had they been able to produce one hundred T90s per month, they would have surely done so and sent them to the frontline. But they are not able to do that.

So, the effects of sanctions are visible also on the battlefield. But just like the economic sanctions, the technological sanctions are the same slow-killing poison. It takes time for this degradation effect to kick in. We need more time. We need more patience. And again, to those who would be happy to see a collapse: with this present authoritarian, increasingly monolithic, and increasingly paranoid regime in Russia, I’m not sure that an actual economic collapse would be a desired outcome.

With regards to the long-term effects, in particular, on the Russian military capability, has there been any irreparable damage? Can Russia produce, for example, enough aircraft to compete with the pace at which Ukraine has recently been able to shoot it down?

When analysing Russia’s losses, it’s useful to diversify between repairable and irreparable losses. The large surface combatants — read ‘big warships’ — of the Black Sea Fleet constitute irreparable losses. My personal favourite examples are the Ropucha class large landing ships: so far, Ukraine has managed to neutralise at least four of them. Russia is not able to produce them because these landing crafts were produced back in communist Poland — and it’s highly unlikely that Poland would ever again deliver warships to Russia.

The same is, of course, with the Moskva missile cruiser. Russia lacks the shipbuilding capability necessary to produce such large warships, so most of the naval assets constitute either irreparable losses or losses that could be repaired only in an extremely long time. The same is true for the Kilo-class submarine which was destroyed in the dry docks of Sevastopol. Yes, Russia is theoretically able to build Kilo-class subs, but taking into account their overall shortage of labour force in the defence sector, it’s unlikely that it would be a priority for them to replace this lost submarine.

Another type of irreparable losses are the airborne early warning radar systems, the Beriev A-50, of which Ukraine has already managed to shoot down two and which Russia has never had too many. The British intelligence reports that Russia has in total some five of these aircraft left operational; even in the Soviet times, not that many were produced. Now, Ukraine managed to shoot down two; last year, Belarusian partisans managed to damage the third. Both the aircraft and the crew constitute extremely precious losses for Russia. There is no way they could quickly train a new crew or quickly produce any of these aircraft. Open sources read that, in fact, Russia is not able to replace the lost A-50s.

If you move away a bit from the military hardware and more to manpower, Russia has lost thousands of officers and tens of thousands of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) — the soldiers who lead the troops into battle. It takes a decade or more to properly train a major or a lieutenant colonel. These officers are extremely hard to replace, particularly because Russia receives no training assistance from abroad, except from Belarus. However, the Belarusian army is the most inexperienced force in Europe, so what one can learn from the Belarusians is basic weapons handling but not much more.

Ukraine has, of course, suffered heavy losses but has also been constantly receiving training assistance from the West, which is going to continue and even grow. As a result, the gap between an average Russian soldier and an average Ukrainian soldier is going to increase because Ukraine receives training, assistance, equipment, and weaponry from the West. Who else would help Russia? Thus, I would consider experienced soldiers to be hardly recoverable losses on the Russian side.

Many in the West believe the ex-Soviet weapon stockpiles that Russia has been re-activating to be infinite, as if they had an unlimited number of weapons. No, it’s not true. Let’s look at tanks: tanks are easy to count because most of them have been stored outside, meaning that by using satellite imagery, it’s possible to measure how these stockpiles have been depleting. Before the war, according to the data from The Military Balance publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Russia had approximately 5 500 tanks conserved. Last year, they managed to ‘de-conserve’ or ‘re-activate’ some 1 100 or 1 200 of them. Of course, not all conserved tanks can be repaired because they’ve been stored outside for decades, so some of them just be beyond repair. If we take the current repair rate — roughly 1 200 tanks per year — it means that the current stockpiles would run out in 3-4 years, even if each and every conserved tank could be repaired, which is certainly not the case.

Moreover, there is one more variable which further decreases Russia’s ability to sustain the current attrition rate. And this variable is that there is a certain minimum threshold for the Russian armed forces regarding the capabilities they have to save and conserve. To put it simply, they cannot send their last tank to Ukraine. They cannot fire their last missile at Ukraine. They have to save some capabilities. I don’t know where this threshold is — it might be 10%, 15%, or 20% — but there certainly is one.

At the current attrition rate, I do not see how Russia could sustain its war effort beyond 2-3 years more. The stockpiles, which many perceive as infinite, are going to run out. Nothing is infinite. Nothing is unlimited, not even Russia’s military stockpiles. Yet, it also means that the next 2-3 years are going to be hard, particularly this year. With this Czech ammunition project, Ukraine’s artillery will be in better shape two-three months from now. But until then, until this new ammunition can be delivered, more and more territory will be lost; more and more human lives will be lost.

One cannot defend a position without artillery shells. Let’s take Avdiivka as an example. It used to be a near-perfect fortress: a town and kilometres of open land around it. It was basically a shooting range for Ukrainian artillery. Russians has had to cross open terrain, with no cover and nowhere to hide. Ukraine could just turkey shoot — that is how it could be held for nine years. But once there is no ammunition, guns go silent. And Russians have advanced 10 kilometres in two weeks’ time. Now, Ukrainians are trying to set up a defence line along the water reservoirs, but it’s not going to be the same as the defence line which has been built for years.

In the next two months, until the new artillery animation arrives, Ukraine will lose some territory. Certain things I do not understand: how come Ukraine had no reserve positions behind? Now, soldiers rotated out from the frontline are not resting or recovering but digging trenches, pouring concrete, building fortifications, etc. Right now, the Russians are flying without the A-50s, that’s why their Sukhoi jets have to come closer to the frontline — they don’t see where the Ukrainian air defence is, which makes them vulnerable. Meanwhile, these glide bombs, these KABs, there is no defence against them and Russia has been using them in large numbers.

Russians are suffering extremely high losses, even by their own standards. One has to take the Ukrainian data with a grain of salt: according to some Western experts working in Kyiv, those numbers might be 15-20% higher but otherwise accurate. Even if we subtract 20%, it still means that Russians lost over 300 000 people. That’s a hell of a lot: for example, in Avdiivka, they were losing one battalion per day.

Can they sustain such casualties?

In October 2022, they said to have mobilised 300 000; in reality, it was 260 000 — the first wave of big mobilisation. Last year, they recruited approximately 300 000 because the money they were paying was good. Right now, it looks like they can recruit approximately 25-30 thousand people per month. So far, this has been covering their losses. But again, this is not indefinite: sooner or later, the people who are willing to serve for these wages either run out or their quality decreases.

It does not make me happy to watch all these drone videos of various Russian units being killed here and there, but the tactical skills those units demonstrate are often just zero. While some of them are indeed good, most Russian units are getting weaker and weaker regarding the quality of the newly recruited soldiers. Russia recruits them, gives them basic training (sometimes, no training), and immediately sends them to the frontline. 40-50-60 thousand of them just perished. They cannot do this for an unlimited time: even if Russia can sustain the losses by numbers, the quality is going down. And who will lead these soldiers? Who are the officers? Who will make sure that they survive? They can do this for a while more but not indefinitely.

Do Russians have more time and resources than Ukraine does?

It depends on the Americans. The European defence industry is gaining momentum, so the second half of this year will be a lot better. Right now, Ukraine’s artillery fires 1 500 to 2 000 shells per day. If it’s possible to increase that number to 5 000 shots per day (so, by 2-2.5 times), 800 000 ammunition would last for five and a half months — that’s not bad. Moreover, the western artillery is more precise and has a longer range. Additionally, Germany has already sent 120 000 shells for the Soviet guns. Production is increasing everywhere.

The problem is their air defence missiles. If Iran were to deliver a large number of ballistic missiles, that would be bad, because there is no efficient way to shoot them down, if they are coming in concentrated numbers.. Only the Patriots can shoot them down, and possibly the IRIS-T; both are expensive and available in very, very small numbers. The good news is that Russia has not been able to get what it wants. Every second or third week, a high-ranking Russian delegation travels to Tehran, trying to get the missiles. So far, the answer is ‘no.’


They want to drive up the price. And the US has been putting both direct and indirect pressure on Iranians. We’ll see. Artillery-wise, Ukraine will be all right in a relatively short time from now. It doesn’t mean offensive capabilities for liberating more land, but it’s enough for stopping the Russians and stopping them for good. And that’s the first step anyway.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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