This piece is part of a series of policy analyses entitled “The Talbott Papers on Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” named in honor of American statesman and former Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott. Brookings is grateful to Trustee Phil Knight for his generous support of the Brookings Foreign Policy program.
Nine months into Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, the outcome of the war remains unclear. The Russian military appears incapable of taking Kyiv or occupying a major portion of the country. Ukrainian forces have enjoyed three months of success on the battlefield and could well continue to make progress in regaining territory. The war also could settle into a more drawn-out conflict, with neither side capable of making a decisive breakthrough in the near term.
Projecting the ultimate outcome of the war is challenging. However, some major ramifications for Russia and its relations with Ukraine, Europe, and the United States have come into focus. While the war has been a tragedy for Ukraine and Ukrainians, it has also proven a disaster for Russia — militarily, economically, and geopolitically. The war has badly damaged Russia’s military and tarnished its reputation, disrupted the economy, and profoundly altered the geopolitical picture facing Moscow in Europe. It will make any near-term restoration of a degree of normalcy in U.S.-Russian relations difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Russia’s war against Ukraine
This latest phase in hostilities between Russia and Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin directed his forces to launch a major, multi-prong invasion of Ukraine. The broad scope of the assault, which Putin termed a “special military operation,” suggested that Moscow’s objectives were to quickly seize Kyiv, presumably deposing the government, and occupy as much as the eastern half to two-thirds of the country.
The Russian army gained ground in southern Ukraine, but it failed to take Kyiv. By late March, Russian forces were in retreat in the north. Moscow proclaimed its new objective as occupying all of Donbas, consisting of the oblasts (regions) of Luhansk and Donetsk, some 35% of which had already been occupied by Russian and Russian proxy forces in 2014 and 2015. After three months of grinding battle, Russian forces captured almost all of Luhansk, but they made little progress in Donetsk, and the battlelines appeared to stabilize in August.
In September, the Ukrainian army launched two counteroffensives. One in the northeast expelled Russian forces from Kharkiv oblast and pressed assaults into Luhansk oblast. In the south, the second counteroffensive succeeded in November in driving Russian forces out of Kherson city and the neighboring region, the only area that Russian forces occupied east of the Dnipro River, which roughly bisects Ukraine.
Despite three months of battlefield setbacks, Moscow has shown no indication of readiness to negotiate seriously to end the war. Indeed, on September 30, Putin announced that Russia was annexing Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts, even though Russian forces did not fully control that territory and consistently lost ground there in the following weeks. The Russian military made up for battlefield losses by increasing missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, aimed in particular at disrupting electric power and central heating.
As of late November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government insisted on conditions that included Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory (including Crimea and all of Donbas), compensation, and punishment for war crimes. While these are understandable demands given what Ukraine has gone through, achieving them would prove difficult. Still, Kyiv appeared confident that it could liberate more territory even as winter approached.
After nine months of fighting, the Russian military has shown itself incapable of seizing and holding a large part of Ukraine. While the war’s outcome is uncertain, however the conflict ends, a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state will remain on the map of Europe. Moreover, it will be larger than the rump state that the Kremlin envisaged when it launched the February invasion.
Whether the Ukrainian military can drive the Russians completely out or at least back to the lines as of February 23 is also unclear. Some military experts believe this is possible, including the full liberation of Donbas and Crimea. Others offer less optimistic projections. The U.S. intelligence community has forecast that the fighting could drag on and become a war of attrition.
Forging a hostile neighbor
Today, most Ukrainians regard Russia as an enemy.
Of all the pieces of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union that Moscow lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, no part meant more to Russians than Ukraine. The two countries’ histories, cultures, languages, and religions were closely intertwined. When the author served at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv at the end of the 1990s, most Ukrainians held either a positive or ambivalent view regarding Russia. That has changed. Today, most Ukrainians regard Russia as an enemy.
Putin’s war has been calamitous for Ukraine. The precise number of military and civilians casualties is unknown but substantial. The Office of the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that, as of the end of October, some 6,500 Ukrainian civilians had been killed and another 10,000 injured. Those numbers almost certainly understate the reality. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley on November 10 put the number of civilian dead at 40,000 and indicated that some 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded (Milley gave a similar number for Russian casualties, a topic addressed later in this paper).
In addition, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees placed the number of Ukrainians who have sought refuge outside of Ukraine at more than 7.8 million as of November 8. As of mid-November, the Russian attacks had caused an estimated 6.5 million more to become internally displaced persons within Ukraine.
Besides the human losses, the war has caused immense material damage. Estimates of the costs of rebuilding Ukraine run from $349 billion to $750 billion, and those appraisals date back to the summer. Finding those funds will not be easy, particularly as the war has resulted in a significant contraction of the Ukrainian economy; the World Bank expects the country’s gross domestic product to shrink by 35% this year.
All this has understandably affected Ukrainian attitudes. It has deepened the sense of Ukrainian national identity. An August poll showed 85% self-identifying as Ukrainian citizens as opposed to people of some region or ethnic minority; only 64% did so six months earlier — before Russia’s invasion. The invasion has also imbued Ukrainians with a strongly negative view of Russia: The poll showed 92% holding a “bad” attitude regarding Russia as opposed to only 2% with a “good” attitude.
Ukrainians have made clear their resolve to resist. A September Gallup poll reported 70% of Ukrainians determined to fight until victory over Russia. A mid-October Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll had 86% supporting the war and opposing negotiations with Russia, despite Russian missile attacks against Ukrainian cities.
It will take years, if not decades, to overcome the enmity toward Russia and Russians engendered by the war. One Ukrainian journalist predicted last summer that, after the war’s end, Ukraine would witness a nationwide effort to “cancel” Russian culture, e.g., towns and cities across the country would rename their Pushkin Squares. It has already begun; Odesa intends to dismantle its statue of Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who founded the city in 1794.
Ironically for an invasion launched in part due to Kremlin concern that Ukraine was moving away from Russia and toward the West, the war has opened a previously closed path for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union (EU). For years, EU officials concluded agreements with Kyiv, including the 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. However, EU officials avoided language that would give Ukraine a membership perspective. In June, four months after Russia’s invasion, the European Council recognized Ukraine’s European perspective and gave it the status of candidate country. Kyiv will need years to meet the EU’s standards, but it now has a membership perspective that it lacked for the first 30 years of its post-Soviet independence.
As for NATO, 10 alliance members have expressed support for a membership path for Ukraine, nine in central Europe plus Canada. Other allies have generally remained silent or noncommittal, reflecting the fact that many, while prepared to provide Ukraine financial and military assistance, are not prepared to go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine. Even though Kyiv cannot expect membership or a membership action plan any time soon, it will have continued NATO support in its fight against Russia and, once the war is over, help in building a modern and robust military to deter a Russian attack in the future.
The Kremlin has sought since the end of the Soviet Union to keep Ukraine bound in a Russian sphere of influence. From that perspective, the last nine years of Russian policy have been an abysmal failure. Nothing has done more than that policy to push Ukraine away from Russia and toward the West, or to promote Ukrainian hostility toward Russia and Russians.
A disaster for Russia’s military and economy
While a tragedy for Ukraine, Putin’s decision to go to war has also proven a disaster for Russia.
While a tragedy for Ukraine, Putin’s decision to go to war has also proven a disaster for Russia. The Russian military has suffered significant personnel and military losses. Economic sanctions imposed by the EU, United States, United Kingdom, and other Western countries have pushed the Russian economy into recession and threaten longer-term impacts, including on the country’s critical energy sector.
In November, Milley put the number of dead and wounded Russian soldiers at 100,000, and that could fall on the low side. A Pentagon official said in early August Russian casualties numbered 70,000-80,000. That was more than three months ago, and those months have shown no kindness to the Russian army. Reports suggest that newly-mobilized and ill-trained Russian units have been decimated in combat.
The Russian military has lost significant amounts of equipment. The Oryx website reports 8,000 pieces of equipment destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured, including some 1,500 tanks, 700 armored fighting vehicles, and 1,700 infantry fighting vehicles. Oryx advises that its numbers significantly understate the true nature of Russian losses, as it counts only equipment for which it has unique photo or videographic evidence of its fate. Others report much heavier losses. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commented that the Russian military had lost “staggering” numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles, adding that Western trade restrictions on microchips would inhibit production of replacements.
As a result of these losses, Russia has had to draw on reserves, including T-64 tanks first produced nearly 50 years ago. It reportedly has turned to tanks from Belarus to replenish its losses. To augment its own munitions, Russia has had to purchase attack drones from Iran and artillery shells from North Korea. As the Russian military has drawn down stocks of surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles, it has used S-300 anti-aircraft missiles against ground targets. The Russian defense budget will need years to replace what the military has lost or otherwise expended in Ukraine.
Poor leadership, poor tactics, poor logistics, and underwhelming performance against a smaller and less well-armed foe have left Russia’s military reputation in a shambles. That will have an impact. Over the past decade, Russian weapons exporters saw their share of global arms exports drop by 26%. Countries looking to buy weapons likely will begin to turn elsewhere, given that Russia’s military failed to dominate early in the war, when its largely modernized forces faced a Ukrainian military armed mainly with aging Soviet-era equipment (that began to change only in the summer, when stocks of heavy weapons began arriving from the West).
As Russia went to war, its economy was largely stagnant; while it recorded a post-COVID-19 boost in 2021, average real income fell by 10% between 2013 and 2020. It will get worse. The West has applied a host of economic sanctions on the country. While the Russian Central Bank’s actions have mitigated the worst impacts, the Russian economy nevertheless contracted by 5% year-on-year compared to September 2021. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expects Russia’s economy to contract by 3.9% in 2022 and 5.6% in 2023, and a confidential study supposedly done for the Kremlin projected an “inertial” case in which the economy bottomed out only in 2023 at 8.3% below 2021. One economist notes that the West’s cut-off of chips and microelectronics has devastated automobile, aircraft, and weapons production, with the output of cars falling by 90% between March and September; he expects a long run of stagnation.
In addition to coping with the loss of high-tech and other key imports, the Russian economy faces brain drain, particularly in the IT sector, that began in February as well as the departure of more than 1,000 Western companies. It also has a broader labor force challenge. The military has mobilized 300,000 men, and the September mobilization order prompted a new flood of Russians leaving the country, with more than 200,000 going to Kazakhstan. Some estimates suggest several hundred thousand others have fled to other countries. Taken together, that means something like three-quarters of a million men unavailable to work in the economy.
Russia thus far has staved off harsher economic difficulties in part because of its oil and gas exports and high energy prices. High prices have partially offset the decline in volume of oil and gas exports. That may soon change, at least for oil. The EU banned the purchase of Russian crude oil beginning on December 5, and the West is prohibiting shipping Russian oil on Western-flagged tankers or insuring tankers that move Russian oil if the oil is sold above a certain price, now set at $60 per barrel. The price cap — if it works as planned — could cut sharply into the revenues that Russian oil exports generate. The cap will require that Russian exporters discount the price of oil that they sell; the higher the discount, the less revenue that will flow to Russia.
Weaning Europe off of Russian gas poses a more difficult challenge, but EU countries have made progress by switching to imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moreover, European companies have found ways to cut energy use; for example, 75% of German firms that use gas report that they have reduced gas consumption without having to cut production. EU countries face a much better energy picture this winter than anticipated several months ago. If Europe successfully ends its import of Russian piped natural gas, that will pose a major problem for Gazprom, Russia’s large gas exporter. Gazprom’s gas exports move largely by pipeline, and Gazprom’s gas pipeline structure is oriented primarily toward moving gas from the western Siberian and Yamal gas fields to Europe. New pipelines would be needed to switch the flow of that gas to Asia. If Europe can kick the Russian gas habit, Gazprom will see a significant decline in its export volumes, unless it can build new pipelines to Asian markets and/or greatly expand its LNG export capacity, all of which will be expensive.
A further problem facing Russia’s energy sector is that, as existing oil and gas fields are depleted, Russian energy companies must develop new fields to sustain production levels. Many of the potential new fields are in the Arctic region or off-shore and will require billions — likely, tens of billions — of dollars of investment. Russian energy companies, however, will not be able to count on Western energy companies for technical expertise, technology, or capital. That will hinder future production of oil and gas, as current fields become exhausted.
Another potential economic cost looms. The West has frozen more than $300 billion in Russian Central Bank reserves. As damages in Ukraine mount, pressure will grow to seize some or all of these assets for a Ukraine reconstruction fund. Western governments thus far show little enthusiasm for the idea. That said, it is difficult to see how they could turn to their taxpayers for money to assist Ukraine’s rebuilding while leaving the Russian Central Bank funds intact and/or releasing those funds back to Russia.
Western sanctions did not produce the quick crash in the ruble or the broader Russian economy that some expected. However, their impact could mean a stagnant economy in the longer term, and they threaten to cause particular problems in the energy sector and other sectors that depend on high-tech inputs imported from the West. Moscow does not appear to have handy answers to these problems.
Changed geopolitics in Europe
In 2021, Moscow saw a West that was divided and preoccupied with domestic politics. The United States was recovering from four years of the Trump presidency, post-Brexit politics in Britain remained tumultuous, Germany faced September elections to choose the first chancellor in 16 years not named Angela Merkel, and France had a presidential election in early 2022. That likely affected Putin’s decision to launch his February invasion. In the event, NATO and the EU responded quickly and in a unified manner, and the invasion has prompted a dramatic reordering of the geopolitical scene in Europe. European countries have come to see Russia in a threatening light, reminiscent of how they viewed the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. NATO’s June 2022 summit statement was all about deterrence and defense with regard to Russia, with none of earlier summits’ language on areas of cooperation.
Few things epitomize the change more than the Zeitenwende (turning-point) in German policy. In the days following the Russian invasion, Berlin agreed to sanctions on Russian banks that few expected the Germans to approve, reversed a long-standing ban on exporting weapons to conflict zones in order to provide arms to Ukraine, established a 100-billion-euro ($110 billion) fund for its own rearmament, and announced the purchase of American dual-capable F-35 fighters to sustain the German Air Force’s nuclear delivery role. Just days before the assault, the German government said it would stop certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Berlin’s follow-up has been bumpy and, at times, seemingly half-hearted, which has frustrated many of its partners. Still, in a few short weeks in late February and early March, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government erased five decades of German engagement with Moscow.
Other NATO members have also accelerated their defense spending. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European allies and Canada have boosted defense spending by a total of $350 billion compared to levels in 2014, when the alliance — following Russia’s seizure of Crimea — set the goal for each member of 2% of gross domestic product devoted to defense by 2024. Stoltenberg added that nine members had met the 2% goal while 10 others intended to do so by 2024. Poland plans to raise its defense spending to 3% next year, and other allies have suggested the 3% target as well.
Moscow did not like the small multinational battlegroups that NATO deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland beginning in 2017. Each numbered some 1,000-1,500 troops (battalion-sized) and were described as “tripwire” forces. Since February, NATO has deployed additional battlegroups in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia and decided on a more robust forward presence, including brigade-sized units, while improving capabilities for reinforcement. The U.S. military presence in Europe and European waters has grown from 80,000 service personnel to 100,000 and includes deployment of two F-35 squadrons to Britain, more destroyers to be homeported in Spain, and a permanent headquarters unit in Poland.
In addition to larger troop deployments, the Baltic Sea has seen a geopolitical earthquake. Finland and Sweden, which long pursued policies of neutrality, applied to join NATO in May and completed accession protocols in July. They have significant military capabilities. Their accession to the alliance, expected in early 2023, will make the Baltic Sea effectively a NATO lake, leaving Russia with just limited access from the end of the Gulf of Finland and its Kaliningrad exclave.
In early 2014, NATO deployed virtually no ground combat forces in countries that had joined the alliance after 1997. That began changing after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. The recent invasion has further energized NATO and resulted in its enlargement by two additional members. As Russia has drawn down forces opposite NATO countries (and Finland) in order to deploy them to Ukraine, the NATO military presence on Russia’s western flank has increased.
The Kremlin has waged a two-front war this year, fighting on the battlefield against Ukraine while seeking to undermine Western financial and military support for Kyiv. The Russians are losing on both fronts.
The Kremlin has waged a two-front war this year, fighting on the battlefield against Ukraine while seeking to undermine Western financial and military support for Kyiv. The Russians are losing on both fronts. The Russian military has been losing ground to the Ukrainian army and has carried out a campaign of missile strikes against power, heat, and water utilities in the country, which threatens a humanitarian crisis. Much will depend on how bad the winter is, but Ukrainians have shown remarkable resilience in restoring utilities, and the Russian attacks could further harden their resolve. Moreover, the brutality of the Russian missile campaign has already led Ukraine’s Western supporters to provide Kyiv more sophisticated air defenses, and pressures could grow to provide other weapons as well.
As for the second front, despite high energy prices, having to house the majority of the nearly eight million Ukrainians who have left their country, and concerns over how long the fighting might last, European support for Ukraine has not slackened. Russian hints of nuclear escalation caused concern but did not weaken European support for Ukraine, and Moscow has markedly deescalated the nuclear rhetoric in recent weeks. Given Russia’s relationship with China, the Kremlin certainly noticed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent criticism of nuclear threats.
It appears Moscow’s influence elsewhere is slipping, including among post-Soviet states. Kazakhstan has boosted its defense spending by more than 50%. In June, on a stage with Putin in St. Petersburg, its president pointedly declined to follow Russia’s lead in recognizing the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” as independent states. Neither Kazakhstan nor any other member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — or any other post-Soviet state, for that matter — has recognized Russia’s claimed annexations of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. In a remarkable scene at an October Russia-Central Asia summit, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon openly challenged Putin for his lack of respect for Central Asian countries. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoiled a late November CSTO summit; he refused to sign a leaders’ declaration and noticeably moved away from Putin during the summit photo op.
More broadly, in October, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution calling for rejection — and demanding reversal — of Moscow’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian oblasts by a vote of 143-5 (35 abstaining). A recent article documented how Russia has found its candidates rejected and its participation suspended in a string of U.N. organizations, including the International Telecommunications Union, Human Rights Council, Economic and Social Council, and International Civil Aviation Organization. Putin chose not to attend the November G-20 summit in Bali, likely reflecting his expectation that other leaders would have snubbed him and refused to meet bilaterally, as well as the criticism he would have encountered in multilateral sessions. The summit produced a leaders’ declaration that, while noting “other views,” leveled a harsh critique at Moscow for its war on Ukraine.
A deep freeze with Washington
While U.S.-Russian relations had fallen to a post-Cold War low point in 2020, the June 2021 summit that U.S. President Joe Biden held with Putin gave a modest positive impulse to the relationship. U.S. and Russian officials that fall broadened bilateral diplomatic contacts and gave a positive assessment to the strategic stability dialogue, terming the exchanges “intensive and substantive.” Moreover, Washington saw a possible drop-off in malicious cyber activity originating from Russia. However, the Russian invasion prompted a deep freeze in the relationship, and Washington made clear that business as usual was off the table.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and CIA Director Bill Burns nevertheless have kept channels open to their Russian counterparts. These lines of communication seek to avoid miscalculation — particularly miscalculation that could lead to a direct U.S.-Russia or NATO-Russia clash — and reduce risk. But other channels remain largely unused. Burns’s November 14 meeting with Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian external intelligence service, was the most senior face-to-face meeting between U.S. and Russian officials in nine months. Biden and Putin have not spoken directly with one another since February, and that relationship seems irretrievably broken.
In a positive glimmer, Biden told the U.N. General Assembly “No matter what else is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures.” Speaking in June, the Kremlin spokesperson said “we are interested [in such talks]… Such talks are necessary.” U.S. officials have privately indicated that, while they have prerequisites for resuming the strategic dialogue, progress on ending the Russia-Ukraine war is not one of them. This leaves room for some hope that, despite their current adversarial relationship, Washington and Moscow may still share an interest in containing their competition in nuclear arms.
Beyond that, however, it is difficult to see much prospect for movement toward a degree of normalcy in the broader U.S.-Russia relationship. With Moscow turning to Iran and North Korea for weapons, Washington cannot count on Russian help in trying to bring Tehran back into the nuclear deal (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or to increase pressure on North Korea to end its missile launches and not to conduct another nuclear test. Likewise, coordination on Syria is less likely. It may well be that any meaningful improvement in the overall bilateral relationship requires Putin’s departure from the Kremlin. A second requirement could be that Putin’s successor adopt policy changes to demonstrate that Russia is altering course and prepared to live in peace with its neighbors.
What happens will depend on how the Russian elite and public view his performance; while some signs of disaffection over the war have emerged, it is too early to forecast their meaning for Putin’s political longevity.
This does not mean to advocate a policy of regime change in Russia. That is beyond U.S. capabilities, especially given the opacity of today’s Kremlin. U.S. policy should remain one of seeking a change in policy, not regime. That said, the prospects for improving U.S.-Russian relations appear slim while Putin remains in charge. What happens will depend on how the Russian elite and public view his performance; while some signs of disaffection over the war have emerged, it is too early to forecast their meaning for Putin’s political longevity.
Still, while it remains difficult to predict the outcome of the war or the impact it may have on Putin’s time in the Kremlin, there is little doubt that the fighting with Ukraine and its ramifications will leave Russia diminished in significant ways. It must contend with a badly-damaged military that will take years to reconstitute; years of likely economic stagnation cut off from key high-tech imports; a potentially worsening situation with regard to energy exports and future production; an alarmed, alienated, and rearming Europe; and a growing political isolation that will leave Moscow even more dependent on its relationship with China. Putin still seems to cling to his desire of “regaining” part of Ukraine, which he considers “historic Russian land.” But the costs of that for Russia mount by the day.