Putin, secure in power, sets stage for long and draining war

February 16, 2023 11:49 am

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at a memorial to the Hero Cities during a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in central Moscow, Russia. [Reuters]

Vladimir Putin casts the war in Ukraine as a watershed when Russia finally stood up to the West – but some within the elite fear he has committed his country to a long and fruitless drain on lives and resources.

When the Russian president ordered troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, he expected to win quickly, earn a place in history alongside the tsars, and teach the United States a lesson about Russia’s revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He was wrong. The war has killed or wounded hundreds of thousands; Russia and Russians are vilified in the West as aggressors; and his army now faces a resilient Ukraine backed by an expanding U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

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One senior Russian source with knowledge of decision-making said Putin’s hopes of burnishing his reputation had been dashed.

“Ahead, it will be even more difficult and more costly for both Ukraine and Russia,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Economic losses on this scale are not worth a few conquered territories.”

The source said he believed many of the elite shared his view, although to say so publicly would invite swift retribution.

Putin says Moscow is locked in an existential battle with an arrogant West that wants to carve up Russia and its vast resources – a narrative that Ukraine and the West reject.

For all the geopolitical shock waves Putin has caused, he still has no serious rival for power, according to five senior Russian sources close to decision-making. And with all public dissent suppressed, the 70-year-old need not fear the presidential election that looms in March 2024.

The full strategic and economic consequences of the war may reverberate for some time, however.

“I don’t believe in a major offensive, or in the possibility of a Russian victory against the whole civilised world,” said a second senior source close to the Kremlin, who also declined to be named.

The source said Russia was at a disadvantage in both military technology and motivation, but that the war would still continue “for a very long time”.