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War of attrition in Ukraine - Russian external perspectives?

Nov 18, 2022

As this column was written on November 10, the news is dominated by the declared (but not assured) Russian withdrawal from Kherson. It was made public immediately after the mid-term elections in the United States – the outcome of which cannot be assumed to have corresponded to Russian expectations.

According to many observers, the picture of a war of attrition that at least extends over the winter months of 2022-23 is even more apparent - while others speculate about possible escalating responses from the Russian side.


The option of tactical nuclear weapons has been analysed by many observers using various conceivable rational or irrational explanatory models during the autumn and will not be elaborated further here. Powerful strikes by other means against critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants or dams, have also been discussed.


If it now turns out that Putin perceives increasingly locked positions along the front in Ukraine, what conclusions will he draw from this? How will this affect the willingness to assist Ukraine in the US and Europe, and what further can be done on the Russian side to undermine Western morale?


What potential bright spots are there on the international map? Could defence-industrial cooperation between Russia and India make a difference in the short term? What can be gained from the Russian side by a further rapprochement with Iran? This and much more must be carefully explored by Foreign Minister Lavrov and his emissaries at various levels.


But the primary impression seems gloomy, as the news suggests that Putin will likely refrain from participating in the summit with the G20 countries in Indonesia shortly. In that case, it will be another example of an international meeting where Lavrov will feel isolated.


Greater clarity about what the German Chancellor's visit to China with several similar contacts might mean in the medium term is also likely to be an essential issue for Putin's side. Is there a serious risk that the Chinese leadership will further distance itself from Moscow to secure trade and investment opportunities in the West?


Possibly underestimated in the West, is the importance of the Russian problems with its allies in the East. The Swedish Foreign Ministry's Sovietologist Alf Edéen in the 70s, never tired of reminding about the extent of Moscow's threat perceptions when it came to demographic changes that threatened Russian dominance within the Soviet Union.


The fact that young citizens in these countries have not infrequently been able to be recruited into terrorist activities must be deeply worrying for Putin. To the extent that he chooses to continue to recruit guest workers to the front forcibly, he possibly risks further radicalizing a large group that already exists within the borders of the Russian Federation.


Even now, there have been special reports of concern from the hitherto relatively loyal Central Asian leaders. The Tajik President Rahmon, who was already concerned about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan almost ten years ago, now has publicly stated reinforced threat images about how a lack of Russian respect for his security concerns can make the situation unsustainable.


The distancing has already gone quite far between Kazakhstan and Russia despite the Russian "help" to the Kazakh president to restore order earlier in the year.


Visiting diplomacy from the West to Kazakhstan, Armenia, and several states formally allied with Russia may destabilize the situation for Putin. Perhaps even more significant was the visit that Chinese leader Xi Jinping made in September 2022 to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Central Asia is, for China, as the New York Times pointed out, a critical area to secure the country's westward expansion, not only in terms of trade and energy. After all, China's economy was ten times bigger than Russia's, even before the Ukraine war. China continues to invest in infrastructure, and the countries trade with China increases.


After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the method of divide and conquer was used to keep the former Soviet republics in check in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The dependence of the Central Asian neighbours on Russia was, of course, also enormous.


From the perspective of a war of attrition in Ukraine, against this background, time is possibly less and less on Putin's side. Even if he were to succeed in starting war production, the disintegration tendencies around the Russian borders are increasingly a threat to the entire Russian Federation. An escalation of the war to the level of mass destruction can hardly help Putin restore order in the East.


Lars-Erik Lundin