05.12.22 Review

A Preventive Defeat: no matter how the war ends, Russia will come out of it weakened and will be forced to adopt a "self-limiting" policy, experts say

Russia's military, economic, and political losses already incurred during the military conflict in Ukraine are so severe that even a relative victory, the prospects of which are quite low, will not allow to quickly replenish them. As a result, regardless of the conflict's outcome, in the coming years, and possibly a decade, Russia will be forced to switch to a "retrenchment" mode to restore its undermined strength and reputation. This regime would force it to focus on national interest priorities and severely limit its foreign policy influence. Russia's collapse looks like an unlikely scenario, but it will have to rely more and more on China and increase its dependence on it. A weakening of the Kremlin is fraught with a revival of old conflicts in the post-Soviet space when Russia will cease to be a guarantor of compliance with agreements. One way or another, Russia will in any case come out of this conflict with a result exactly the opposite of what it sought to achieve with a full-scale invasion.
Regardless of the war's outcome, which is still unclear, the military, economic and reputational losses incurred during the war with Ukraine leave no doubt that, as a result, Russia will have to abandon its grand strategy of "systemic challenge" to the existing world order, which it has pursued in recent years, and move to a "retrenchment" mode, writes Ivan Klyszcz, an expert at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. "Retrenchment" is not an uncommon strategy and is the most rational thing to do for major powers that have suffered defeat or a large-scale internal crisis, and has been described many times in the literature. Experiencing setbacks, the threat of a deepening crisis, and the collapse of statehood forces decision-makers to focus on restoring strength, reducing risks, and minimizing costs by abandoning commitments that are not a priority and necessity, including conducting military operations and increasing political influence abroad. In Russia, this strategy is well-known thanks to the phrase of Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov, "Russia is concentrating," written shortly after the Russian monarchy's defeat in the Crimean War. This policy of "retrenchment" and "concentration" has recently been discussed mostly in relation to the United States, which in the opinion of many Americans, should reduce its foreign policy commitments.

Poland's defense minister believes it will take Russia three to ten years to recover to the capacity to fight another major war. Russia has squandered a significant part of its military potential without achieving meaningful successes, is dealing with a systemic crisis in its army, and its economic and technological potential has been undermined by international sanctions and a "staggering" "brain flight". In the economy, Russia is forced to implement a strategy of "technologically regressive import substitution" (Branko Milanovic's term). In the political sphere, it will be under strain as it seeks to maintain a regime of personal power and its maximum concentration amid growing dissatisfaction with failures and restrictions. In addition, the Kremlin's authority has declined among both partner countries and Russia's own population. The "retrenchment" mode will be the choice of its policy, regardless of whether Putin resigns or not, or how the war ends.

Russia's "retrenchment" may very well lead to a revival of old and the emergence of new military conflicts in the post-Soviet space, according to Pavel Bayev, a senior fellow at the Center for the United States and Europe at The Brookings Institution. Russia is already losing ground in countries where its traditional presence has been ensuring the reached agreements preservation, the analysts of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington agree. As a result, the efforts it has spent over the past 30 years to establish its leadership in the region are falling by the wayside. Russia has lost its status as a patron country for Armenia, whose president has refused to sign the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) final declaration because of Russia's unwillingness to take a more decisive stance in the renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Russia's tactics of silence and avoidance of arbitration and interference also apply to the dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which forced Kyrgyzstan to cancel the next CSTO military exercise that was supposed to take place on its territory in October. Kazakhstan, while having no direct conflict of interest with any of its neighbors, has also taken a course toward estrangement from Russia, refusing to support the Russian government's idea of imposing joint sanctions on Western countries.

A weakening of Russia could lead to new conflicts along the Georgian border and even in still-Russian Chechnya, Bayev believes. Chechen separatists could take advantage of Ramzan Kadyrov's ambitions, and Russia would be too exhausted to wage another Chechen campaign. Georgia, for its part, may try to return Abkhazia and South Ossetia to its borders. While the return of South Ossetia probably won't be too difficult, a new military conflict could break out over Abkhazia. Belarus will become another point of change, where, according to the analyst, the Lukashenko regime will fall as soon as Russia proves unable to support it. The Belarusian opposition, united by the mass protests of 2020, will strive to create a pro-European government, ready to break the Union State agreement with Russia.

The two most discussed scenarios for a "post-war" Russia are collapse and "reliance on China," increasing the dependence on it. However, according to Ivan Klyszcz, disintegration is a far less likely scenario. Russia is a much more homogeneous country than the Soviet Union. Despite all the difficulties that Russia will face, it will not cease to be a profitable partner for some countries. First, cooperation with Moscow will no longer be dangerous — in the absence of the resources, it will become a more equal partner. Second, Russia, due to its symbolic position in the international arena, will still be able to legitimize friendly regimes. Finally, the Kremlin will be seen as a profitable partner in an anti-Western alliance with which it will be closely associated.

The West already needs to think through scenarios of interaction with this weakened post-war Russia to avoid new geopolitical disasters and try to influence the future new authorities of the country in making decisions based on common security interests, the experts write. However, one way or another, Russia will in any case come out of this conflict with a result exactly the opposite of what it sought to achieve with a full-scale invasion.