02.05.23 Sanctions Review

How Sanctions Have Changed the Kremlin’s Strategy in Ukraine: according to experts, the Russian army’s weakness is no longer people but weapons

A colossal 9,000 to 22,000 units of military equipment have been lost by Russia in the 14-months of war. However, replacing or repairing the equipment has proved to be impossible; sanctions have hampered Russia’s supply of optical systems, bearings, engines, machine tools, and microchips. Ultimately, this means that Russian weapons have degraded in quality. The Russian defence sector has been looking for ways to bypass sanctions, but for the time being, they have had to make do with reconfiguring their weapons, utilising civilian-use technologies, and bringing outdated military equipment back into service. As a result, the quality of Russian armaments is degrading. In contrast, the situation in Ukraine has been improving thanks to the large supplies of modern weapons from the West it has received. This has forced the Kremlin to shift its strategy away from an offensive campaign to a defensive one, and a move to a deliberate prolongation of the conflict. The new strategy aims to give the military-industrial complex time to restock and to exhaust the patience of public opinion and politicians in the West by demonstrating that a stalemate might last indefinitely.

According to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the war in Ukraine has significantly weakened Russia's defence capabilities. The report bases its estimates of Russian military equipment losses on data from two sources: the lower estimate is based on data from the Dutch company Oryx, which specialises in calculating military losses using open data; the upper estimate is based on figures from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which the report notes may be inflated. As a result, the report concludes that Russia’s losses during the 14-months of war range anywhere between 9,000 and 22,000 units of military equipment.

Russian military equipment losses as of March 2023

Western sanctions have hindered the replenishment and repair of Russia's arsenal. The ban on supplying the country with optical systems, bearings, engines, machine tools, and microchips has dealt a significant blow to Russia’s defence capabilities. Russia has historically imported the majority of this equipment from Europe and North America. This means that sanctions have severely limited the military-industrial complex's ability to supply and repair major offensive weapons such as tanks, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft, and electronic warfare systems.

The Russian defence industry has been actively searching for ways to bypass sanctions. To fulfil its needs, the industry has been repurposing old weapons, using civilian-use technologies, and replacing new equipment with older counterparts (‘Frankenstein tanks’ - old vehicles equipped with new engines or optics — are a prime example). In its own review titled ‘Dad’s Army: List Of Russian Army Equipment Deployed In Ukraine Older Than Our Parents,’ Oryx provides a detailed overview of the old weapons currently in use. This includes tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as self-propelled artillery and guns dating from the 1940s to the 1960s, which are being passed off as ‘new’ Russian weapons.

Moreover, the Ministry of Defence has been increasingly resorting to reconfiguring various types of missiles in order to continue its constant barrage on Ukrainian territory. To enhance its ability to sustain such attacks, Russia may seek further assistance from partner countries like Iran or China. Further, the Kremlin has been using global supply chains and fake companies to purchase dual-use components and civilian-use technology. However, according to the authors of the CSIS report, the scale of the imports required by Russia has made it easier for authorities in Europe and the US to monitor these imports, while efforts to substitute them with domestic products have largely failed.

Over time, Russian weaponry has deteriorated in quality, while the situation in Ukraine has improved thanks to its supply of modern weapons from Western countries. As a result, sanctions imposed on the supply of both weapons and high-tech goods have compelled the Kremlin to alter its strategy in Ukraine. Experts suggest that Russia has opted to prolong the conflict instead of launching a broad offensive. By adopting this strategy, the Russian military aims to achieve several objectives: to grant its military-industrial complex the necessary time to establish new production lines and supply chains, to deplete Kyiv's human, economic, and military resources, and, most importantly, to wear down the patience of Western politicians and the public by demonstrating that the war has reached a stalemate and can continue indefinitely.