20 June 2023

Russia’s confrontation with the West will be protracted

More than a year after the extended war in Ukraine, Russia is weaker than before, the countries in its immediate vicinity have more room for manoeuvre and it is more dependent on China. But Russia will not end the war, nor try to repair relations with the West, according to a new anthology from FOI.

A soldier launching a grenade.

Ukrainian soldiers fire in the recently retaken city of Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Sept. 23, 2022. Photo: Kostiantyn Liberov/AP.

FOI’s Russia and Eurasia Project (RUFS) has a long history of studying Russia’s military capabilities, as well as developments not only in the country’s politics, economics and society, but also in its immediate neighbourhood. RUFS’ experts have now written an anthology entitled, Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the West: The First Year.

“From a long-term perspective, Russia’s extended war against Ukraine is a turning point for global security. The anthology is an attempt to identify the most important political, economic, and military consequences of the extended war. The focus is on the consequences for Russia, its neighbours and international security,” says Maria Engqvist, analyst at FOI and one of the editors of the anthology.

The experts who contributed to the anthology provide three main observations. The first is that it is not Ukraine’s political development that is the reason behind Russia's attempt at a full-scale invasion.

“It has more to do with the Russian political leadership’s perception of Russia as a great power. Another observation is that there is a risk that the war will escalate. So far, the war has been fought on the premise that nuclear weapons are not to be used and that a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia should be avoided. If these premises are questioned, the risk of escalation increases. Finally, regardless of how the war in Ukraine develops, Russia’s confrontation with the West will be protracted,” says Emil Wannheden, analyst at FOI and the other editor of the anthology.

Russia is preparing a protracted confrontation with the West

It is estimated that, during the first year of the war, between 50,000 and 100,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded. There have been major losses in materiel and the Russian defense industry must focus on producing munitions. However, this is not anything that makes the Russian leadership even consider ending the war.

“Unless something very radical happens, the Russian leadership, with or without Putin, will continue the confrontation with the West, ultimately by military means, as we have seen in Ukraine. Russia sees itself as a superpower with special rights and a sphere of influence that is its own to decide over,” says Maria Engqvist.

She adds that Russia’s leaders emphasise that the war is aimed at the West, which they believe wants to crush Russia, as a nation. But by claiming that the war is directed against Western ideals and influence, they also fail to articulate what could be considered a victory.

The economy has been damaged by the war and the subsequent sanctions.

“But Russia is not facing an economic collapse, and it is not in a war economy, even if it is moving in that direction. Rather, it is a question of trying to deal with the consequences of the sanctions, and keeping the budget in balance. The necessary income is provided by both the trade with mainly China and the fact that many countries still buy Russian oil and gas. The fact that the standard of living of ordinary citizens is falling is not something that affects the financing of the war,” says Emil Wannheden.

A direct conflict between NATO and Russia would have major consequences

According to the anthology, there is currently nothing to indicate that Russia plans to use nuclear weapons or attack any other country. But that could change.

“As long as the war continues, it seems that Russia can handle one major ground operation at a time. However, the Russian nuclear forces are intact, as are large parts of the navy and the air force. As Russia’s ground forces are severely battered, the importance of nuclear weapons increases,” says Maria Engqvist.

Russia’s neighbours are looking for new allies

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has had great influence over most of the former Soviet republics. Today, Belarus remains an ally of Russia. However, countries such as Kazakhstan, Moldova and Turkmenistan are beginning to reconsider their relations with Russia.

“They have begun to look towards the EU, or countries such as China, Iran and Turkey. What consequences this leads to in the long term remains to be seen,” says Emil Wannheden.