Putin’s Potemkin military

Daniel Gros
Daniel Gros is a member of the board and a distinguished fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies.

War represents a contest of wills, the German strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued some 200 years ago. On this point, the Ukrainians fiercely defending their homeland seem to have a distinct advantage over the invading Russian forces. But, to win a war, will must be supported by military means – and that requires industrial and economic strength. Here, Russia might have an advantage over Ukraine for now, but it is far weaker than the West it ultimately aims to challenge.

In terms of economic and industrial strength, Russia is a mid-size power, at best. Its manufacturing output is only half that of Germany, and its GDP is about the same size as Italy’s. The European Union’s combined GDP is almost ten times larger than Russia’s. And that is before the new round of punitive Western sanctions begin to take their toll.

Given its large economy, Europe can afford to build credible defense capabilities. For European countries to meet their NATO commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP annually on defense, they must increase spending by just 0.5 percent of GDP, on average. If one considers that total government expenditure in these countries currently averages 45 percent of GDP, this seems entirely feasible.

Russia’s low defense investment

Even for laggard Germany, the recently announced short-term defense investment of €100 billion ($109 billion) represents only about 2.5 percent of GDP. Russia, for its part, probably dedicates more than 4 percent of its GDP to defense – a significant burden for a country that needs to maintain costly infrastructure to link its vast territory.

While defense spending accounts for a significant share of Russia’s economy, the sum itself is rather modest, especially by “great-power” standards. Russia spent an estimated $60 billion on defense in 2020, compared to Germany’s $50 billion outlay. At that spending level, and given the corruption that pervades Russian governance, building a large modern fighting force able to sustain a prolonged conflict, while maintaining an outsize nuclear force and advancing great-power ambitions globally, would be a truly astonishing achievement.

It is an achievement Russia cannot claim. In fact, it seems that Russia has had a Potemkin military all along. The “Potemkin” term is taken from Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, the governor of New Russia who is said to have constructed fake settlements to impress Catherine the Great during her 1787 journey to inspect the newly acquired Crimea and surrounding territories. But the story of “Potemkin villages” is largely a myth, and historians disagree about what the czarina actually saw on her tour. It seems that, in reality, Potemkin made considerable investments in infrastructure in and around Crimea, but lacked the resources to link the newly conquered territory to the rest of Russia.

Logistics vulnerable to corruption

The resulting infrastructure weaknesses, together with a failure to build logistical capabilities, severely impeded Russia’s ability to defend itself against English and other European forces during the Crimean War 60 years later. Reports that troops in Ukraine today are facing food and fuel shortages suggest that Russia did not learn its lesson. Logistics is always the area most vulnerable to corruption in the military.

Understanding the consequences of the Russian military’s lack of resources requires us to look not only at what has happened in Ukraine, but also – and perhaps more importantly – at what has not. For starters, Russia has failed to destroy communications and other electronic-control systems.

It has long been widely assumed that Russia would support any military offensive with “devastating” cyberattacks. But this threat has not materialized, presumably because Ukraine has the support of Western intelligence agencies whose cyberwar capabilities are based on a vastly larger pool of talent and the know-how of US tech giants.

Microsoft identifies malware

In fact, just a few hours before the invasion began, Microsoft detected – and blocked – malware aimed at wiping data from Ukrainian government ministries and financial institutions. The company subsequently shared the code with other European countries, in order to prevent its further use.

Likewise, SpaceX has sent Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine, in order to offset internet disruptions in the country. Making the satellite-internet system operational in the country will take time, because a large number of base stations must be put in place. But this is a question of weeks, not years.

Another Russian dog that did not bark is the air force, which has not established control of Ukraine’s airspace, even though Russia has almost ten times as many planes as Ukraine does. Yes, Russia deployed a barrage of missiles to knock out radar and airfields on the first day of the invasion. But the first volley was not followed by a second, because Russia’s stockpile of precision-guided missiles and other expensive ordnance is limited. Moreover, Russia’s pilots appear to have little experience – probably because, like precision-guided weapons, effective pilot training is expensive. And, finally, crucial weapons-delivery systems are not up to date.

Western sanctions take effect

Putin could have gone into this war with a large supply of precision-guided missiles or with a large stock of foreign-exchange reserves. He chose the latter. Now that half of those reserves have been blocked by unprecedented Western sanctions, he is probably regretting that decision. Given Russia’s limited capacity to ramp up weapons production quickly – especially production of sophisticated weapons systems, which require inputs he can no longer source from abroad – Putin’s prospects for sustaining his war in Ukraine seem limited.

In a struggle between two equally motivated opponents, broad economic and industrial strength is decisive. Putin has launched a war from a weak material starting point. He has motivated Europe to start investing in its own defense. He has set Russia on a course of demoralizing economic decline. And, above all, he has motivated Ukrainians to fight fiercely for their freedom.

If the Ukrainians manage to hold out against the initial onslaught, their determination, together with potentially unlimited Western support, could turn the tide of Putin’s war – and of Putin’s regime.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2022.

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