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Russia Will Pursue Desperate Strategies After It Exhausts Its Missile Supply

(Sputnik/Sergey Guneev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Aside from the fact that history shows that rockets are far more useful at inflicting damage against military than civilian targets, their misuse may indicate an underlying strategic desperation in the Kremlin.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s generals have made a critical error in their recklessly profligate expenditure of 4,700 of their scarce theatre missiles on civilian targets. The largest barrage of Russian rockets launched thus far in the war, on November 23, 2022, included 70 Kalibr cruise missiles and five Lancet drones (worth $400 to $700 million), killing six Ukrainian civilians and wounding 36. Aside from the fact that history shows that rockets are far more useful at inflicting damage against military than civilian targets, their misuse may indicate an underlying strategic desperation in the Kremlin.

Six weeks of precision attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure ahead of winter, beginning on October 10th, have reduced Russia’s arsenal of Iskander, Kalibr, and Kh-47 missiles. Other remaining systems, whose warheads are much smaller or are optimized for use against naval targets, include the 3M-55 Onyx, Kh-101, Kh-555, Kh-22, and Kh-35. At an expenditure rate of 50 missiles per volley every three days, that leaves only six days worth of volleys, spread out over three weeks. With estimates of Ukrainian non-combatant deaths due to missile, artillery, and air strikes at less than 1,000, each inflicted death is costing Russia over $2 million. Because of extensive Western financial backing and contributions to Kyiv’s air defenses (and their army’s success on the battlefield), the Ukrainian people are bearing their torment with robustly high morale

That President Putin’s generals do not seem to be pacing their rocket volleys suggests that the political planning horizon in Moscow is short-term, typical of domestic political crisis management. In principle, bombing civilian targets works by eroding a target’s manufacturing base and compelling civilian flight. However, most of Ukraine’s military supplies are provided from abroad, its cities were already reduced in population by evacuation, and it has only made incremental steps toward wartime mobilization of its economy. In fact, evidence from the Second World War indicates that cities only begin to become uninhabitable when 70% of their housing has been severely damaged or destroyed, a metric that has not even been inflicted on Kharkiv, which was exposed to much greater Russian artillery shelling on the frontline for four months. Russia’s practice of targeting hospitals, which produced significant demoralization in Syria, has less of an effect in Ukraine, where health care services can be easily dispersed.

That the Kremlin is not making a close study of the effect of its bombing in Ukraine may be because authoritarian regimes are pathologically fearful of their own populations, and are unable to conceive of any social order that is not coerced. President Putin may be blissfully unaware, despite the evidence to the contrary, that his campaign of bombardment is counterproductive, since he is neglecting to strike far more valuable and irreplaceable Ukrainian military targets. Instead, he is satisfied that his missile blitz is receiving a positive spin in Moscow’s propaganda campaign, especially as it staves off Russian criticism of his ineffectual warfighting on the ground. 

University of Rochester professor Hein Goemans, in his 2000 book, War and Punishment, explains that wars almost always end by negotiation when the strategic goals of the two adversaries are reduced, and therefore converge, due to costs and lost lives. Only in the process of fighting in the war is the true power balance revealed. Because democracies are more open regarding information than dictatorships, they are generally much better at determining relative power levels and, therefore, far less likely to start wars where they are likely to lose. We can, thus, expect that most war initiators, at least for large conflicts where victory is far less certain, are initiated by autocratic regimes like Imperial Germany in 1914; Imperial Japan in 1931, 1937, and 1941; Nazi Germany in 1939; North Korea in 1950; Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990; and Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2022.  

Goemans finds that democratic leaders are often humiliatingly voted out of power following a defeat but rarely with greater consequences. Totalitarian leaders operating from within an effective police state, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Communist China, can survive defeats through repression. Saddam survived his 1991 defeat at the hands of an American-led coalition until 2003. Communist leader Mao Zedong survived China’s defeats in 1954, 1958, and 1969. However, leaders of authoritarian states that are not quite totalitarian, like Russia, where remaining in power depends on balancing various social forces in order to suppress civil society, are far less secure, and far less likely to escape severe punishment, including imprisonment and execution, for being defeated in a war. The durability of President Putin’s regime depends on his ability to command reliably the bureaucracy of the Russian state, which is unknown. President Putin’s immediate entourage could come to see him as a liability and displace him in a coup, if it can credibly convince the Russian people that they have an alternative. If, however, their fates and prosperity are tied to President Putin’s, then the fracture may occur at a lower echelon, such as in the military. The Soviet Union collapsed on this lower fissure, when the Soviet Army, protector of the Communist Party, shattered along ethnic lines.

Goemans therefore predicts that President Putin, rather than reducing his war goals commensurate with his poor battlefield performance, will instead “gamble for resurrection.” Despite the clear Russian setback in stopping Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive in early September, and no change in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s conditions for peace, Goemans predicts that President Putin will pursue ever riskier strategies. 

Most Western narratives describe a sequence of events following from the 2014 Maidan Revolution, in which Ukraine expelled Kremlin-influenced puppets from Kyiv, and Russia retaliated shortly thereafter by seizing Crimea and backing the separatist states of Donetsk and Luhansk. President Putin is widely depicted as a glory-seeking, opportunistic expansionist. However, Ukraine was lost during President Putin’s tenure as president, much as the Soviet Union disintegrated during premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s term. In fact, right-wing commentators, supported by a large minority, have blamed President Putin for the failure to protect ethnic Russians and Russophones in Ukraine. President Putin, therefore, sees this war as an attempt to salvage his failure, and, like a desperate gambler, he is making ever-more risky bets to recoup his reputational losses

President Putin may not act desperately if he believes he is able to secure exile, especially internal exile in Russia, but this depends on how violently he leaves office. Nikita Khrushchev was deposed by a KGB-backed coup in 1964, largely because of the failure of Operation Anadyr in Cuba, and he remained secluded within the Soviet Union until his death in 1971. At the end of the First World War, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Karl I was banished to Portuguese Madeira, and Sultan Mehmed VI of the Ottoman Empire departed for Italy. President Putin is unlikely to be welcomed in China, may feel vulnerable in Belarus, and may be expendable in North Korea. He could, however, find sanctuary in India or Brazil, two states crucial enough that the United States is unlikely to be able to compel extradition, though he may be intercepted flying to the latter.  

One possible explanation for the carelessly fast expenditure of rockets is that the bombardment is merely a stop-gap measure meant to buy two months’ worth of training time for Russia’s 300,000 mobilized reserves. Russia trains about two million conscripts every five years, or ten million since 1997, the oldest of whom will be in their forties. Subtract from this the half-a-million men who left Russia by October. Russia is thought to have put into storage at least 7,000 T-72 and 3,000 T-80 tanks, 8,500 BMP-1/2 armored infantry fighting vehicles, and more than 4,000 pieces of towed artillery. If even only 25% of these stocks were still serviceable, it would constitute a force greater than that which invaded Ukraine in February 2022. 

As such, President Putin is likely to make a second or third call-up of 300,000 reservists, limited by the intake capacity of Russia’s training facilities. The ultimate goal could be a re-trained million-man army available within six months, for a summer offensive in June 2023. In the interim, the first 300,000-man tranche may be deployed to shore up defenses in Russian-occupied Ukraine, and may also be used for a winter offensive, benefitting from the ice-hardened ground and rivers. While mobilizations tend to be temporary because they are costly, not only economically in the absence of workers but in the military cost of deployment, Russia’s population of 142 million, and its resource-rich economy, could easily support doubling of Russia’s peacetime military of 900,000 troops. President Putin’s popularity is sufficiently high that he may believe he has half a year in which to make a final bid for victory. This strategy of a massed offensive may be his principal gamble for resurrection. 

A second possible outcome is that President Putin will realize the failure of the bombardment and begin the use of chemical weapons on Ukrainian cities. Although Russia has confirmed the destruction of its Cold War stocks of nerve gas, corrosive agents are an easily manufactured by-product of the chemical industry. Without extensive training for maneuvers in coordination with artillery-delivered agents, Russia’s new reserve army is unlikely to be proficient enough to exploit these weapons on the battlefield. While not decisive against military targets in the winter, because of the crystallization of the agents, civilians who carry trace amounts of agents into warmed indoors will suffer exposure, and this will overload the Ukrainian medical system. Furthermore, if Ukraine finds itself unable to retaliate in kind to chemical attacks on its cities, while its armies are held in check on the ground, despair may lead it to sue for peace. 

Third, President Putin may decide to cross the threshold to nuclear use to compel President Zelenskyy to negotiate a ceasefire. While the Soviet Union had a doctrine for massed high-tempo multi-echelon advances coordinated with nuclear strikes against defending formations, Russia’s new reserve army would at best be trained to apply nuclear fires against point targets, and then advance to occupy them, in attacks reminiscent of the First World War. President Putin may calculate that Russia is immune to the resulting diplomatic retaliation and economic isolation. At a minimum, energy- and food-deficient China is unlikely to allow Russia to collapse. Furthermore, India depends on Moscow to counterbalance China. However, the spasmodic nuclear threats from the Kremlin, followed quickly by admonitions of nuclear weapons use (due to pressure from Beijing), mean that this outcome will likely be ad hoc rather than planned.  

None of these strategies will succeed if President Putin does not increase the morale of the Russian army, which may prove impossible if it is the nature of his regime and entourage that are the cause of the widespread disaffection of his military. The reluctance of the Russian soldiers to act aggressively indicates a loss of confidence in their leadership, whereas the absence of mass surrenders indicates that Russian soldiers retain a private sense of nationalism that allays disintegration. This also indicates that the army has an institutional identity that may become political and turn on President Putin. Until the Kremlin ends its chronic addiction to deceiving the Russian people, Moscow will be unable to reinvent itself as it did in the Winter War against Finland in 1940. The volleys of missiles may be a palliative attempt to show the Russian army and people that their government is not yet powerless.

Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University and the author of the 2007 book Militarization and War and the 2014 book Strategic Nuclear Sharing. He has published extensively on Pakistani security issues and arms control and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then-Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after September 11th.

 

Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University and the author of the 2007 book Militarization and War and the 2014 book Strategic Nuclear Sharing. He has published extensively on Pakistani security issues and arms control and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then-Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after September 11th.

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