21.12.23 Review

Balance of (in)stability: The US must exert pressure on the Putin regime’s areas of vulnerability in order to strategically weaken it

Although Vladimir Putin's regime seems to have dealt with both the consequences of failures on the frontline and the effects of unprecedented economic sanctions, and Putin himself is displaying confidence in his position, it remains vulnerable, according to experts at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS). In their view, instead of unrealistic goals such as achieving an immediate defeat of Russia on the battlefield or changing its political leadership, the United States should focus on a long-term strategy to influence the most vulnerable aspects of the Russian military machine, economy, and political system. A strategy resembling the containment approach used against the USSR has the potential to undermine the Putin regime's expansionist foreign policy and eventually lead to its collapse. To achieve this, the US needs to strengthen sanctions and control over the supply of dual-use goods, push Russia out of the arms export niches that stimulate its military-industrial complex, and limit access to new technologies as much as possible, including by encouraging brain drain. However, a key element of this strategy should be systematic military assistance capable of convincing the Kremlin of the unconditional and long-term nature of US support for Ukraine, as well as further isolating Russia's financial system and undermining its oil and gas exports. In addition, the US should seek to shake the confidence of the Russian elites and masses in the country’s economic stability, the myth of being a great power and political stability through information influence, tools that experts believe have not been fully utilised thus far.

While President Putin has been able to overcome many of the problems caused by the failure of the supposed blitzkrieg on Ukraine and his position in the protracted war with the neighbouring country looks stronger today, in reality his position is very vulnerable on many fronts. Therefore, the West should accurately identify these vulnerabilities and focus on them to avoid dissipating its efforts, as noted in a recent report by experts from the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS).

The US should not aim to achieve a military defeat of Russia 'here and now' or immediately change the Putin regime. Their main objective should be to limit the potential of Putin's expansionist foreign policy, which relies on relative domestic political and economic stability. This requires a long-term and sustainable strategy focused on pressure on a limited number of areas and reminiscent of the policy of strategic containment against the USSR. This eventually led to the accumulation of a critical mass of intractable contradictions and imbalances that led to its collapse and subsequent democratisation.

The CNAS report identifies the ten most important vulnerabilities of modern Russia in the defence, economic, diplomatic and political spheres. 

In the defense sphere, the primary vulnerability is Russia's dependence on imported components for weapon manufacturing. It is unrealistic to expect an immediate effect here and a complete cut-off of supplies. However, the need to constantly respond in a timely manner to technological and financial sanctions, their new tools, and configurations is complex and costly for Russia. It is known that the Russian military-industrial complex faces a particularly acute problem of dependence on electronic components, machine tools, power units, imported components for armoured vehicles, helicopters and drones. The fight against illegal import networks should create constant and increasing pressure in this supply segment by exerting pressure on both their Western producers and intermediary countries. It is essential to increase pressure on Rosatom, its subsidiaries, and partners to maximally restrict the corporation's activities in the production of modern materials and microchips.

Another weakness in Russia's defence sector is the problem of replenishing its arms stockpiles. With sanctions and active frontline operations, Russia finds itself hostage to the contradiction between its own military needs and contractual export obligations. Arms exports have long been a source of revenue for the Russian budget ($15 billion annually between 2011 and 2022), as well as a channel for political influence. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some exporters ceased cooperation with Russia. Deepening military relations with Iran are unlikely to compensate for the lost markets of Indonesia, Egypt and, especially, the loss of large orders from India. According to the CNAS experts, the US needs to consistently push Russia out of its arms trade niches by offering alternative supplies of its own. 

Another security and defence vulnerability for Russia is the crisis of access to high technology and skilled personnel. To maximise the damage, CNAS advises the US authorities to first address 'parallel imports' into Russia by making imports to Russia unprofitable or dangerous, as well as to encourage a 'brain drain' from Russia and provide opportunities and incentives to technology personnel who are willing to stop cooperating with the Russian authorities in favour of the US and its allies.

In the economic sphere, the report points to two key vulnerabilities. The first is the narrowing of the options of Russian monetary, credit, and budgetary policies. Although the Russian financial authorities managed to avoid collapse after the imposition of sanctions, issues in the banking sector, consumer market and the stability of the national currency remain a headache for them. The experts recommend that the US undertake new efforts to undermine the Russian financial system's ability to lend to the private sector and fund the government, as well as to limit the ability of Russian companies to conduct cross-border transactions. The second (or perhaps, in reality, the primary) vulnerability of the Russian economy remains its dependence on the sale of hydrocarbons. However, the experts' recommendations to increase the effectiveness of the price cap do not seem particularly convincing: the key factor here is the balance of supply and demand, and with rising prices the impact of the 'cap' on the price of Russian oil diminishes. 

The actions of the Ukrainian army, the state of the frontline and the need to control the occupied territories constitute the main source of regular political and economic costs for Russia. The regime largely depends on the degree of resistance in these areas. Therefore, the US should first of all strengthen Ukraine's position on the battlefield: arms deliveries should be regular and aimed at convincing the Kremlin of the unconditional and long-term nature of US support for Kyiv.

Efforts to weaken Russia in the international arena must be continued and intensified. On one hand, this includes Central Asia, where the process of Russia losing its dominant position is ongoing and should be supported by the efforts of Ukraine's allies. On the other hand are Russia's relationships with China, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India. The US must develop a system of measures to hinder their development. Even with regard to China, at the moment, the US is managing to achieve cooperation-limiting effects.

Finally, the domestic political situation in Russia is not as invulnerable as one might think or as Vladimir Putin would like to portray it. Russian society harbours no illusions that Vladimir Putin governs the country in their interests. However, a combination of public and elite consensus, along with repression, still bolsters the regime, the experts write. The US should seek to undermine the confidence of the elites and the masses in economic stability, the myth of great power and political stability. While the US has almost no direct channels of influence on the domestic political situation, the possibilities for information influence are more accessible than ever, even in the face of Internet restrictions in Russia. However, this essential resource is not yet being fully utilised.

Like many other experts, the analysts and researchers gathered by CNAS believe that the 'balance of stability' that Vladimir Putin is managing to maintain is quite fragile, facing a host of challenges and problems related to war and economic sanctions. Therefore, the sustainability pressure in areas where vulnerability is particularly high will have a cumulative effect. The goal of these actions is not so much to weaken the regime as to create conditions more favourable to pro-reform forces inside Russia. The US should not shy away from actions that promote such political change for fear of destabilisation in the event of Putin's departure. Betting on a 'weak Russia under Putin' will not pay off, but it will allow the regime to gain confidence in its long-term invulnerability and more effectively regroup its forces. It would also enable the establishment of a network of external interactions to strengthen its defense and economic potential.