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One Year Into Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: What's Next for Putin and Russia?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

It has been a year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II. What lessons have been learned since then? How has the war impacted Russia? And what should be expected next for Putin and Russia? On February 28, Wikistrat CEO Oren Kesler held a webinar with Dr. Samuel Ramani to discuss the topic.

Samuel Ramani is a geopolitical analyst and expert on international security issues. He is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and the author of "Putin's War on Ukraine" and "Russia in Africa."

Key insights from the webinar:

Wikistrat_One Year into Russia's Invasion of Ukraine_20032023
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Webinar Transcription:

Oren Kesler:

I want to start with an introduction to our guest today, Dr. Samuel Ramani, who is an expert on Russia and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, i.e. RUSI. He's also the author of two books, one that was published last year about Russia in Africa, then the other one who's going to be published in April of this year, which is coming soon, and that is Putin's War on Ukraine: Russia's Campaign for Global Counter-Revolution.

So Dr. Ramani, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

Thank you very much. It's great to be here, Oren.

Oren Kesler:

The first question I'm going to ask is a very general one, and I think it's a way to start the discussion with what we want to start from the perspective of how the world changed, not Ukraine, but Russia. And the question is, if you look at the two time periods of Russia, one year from today and Russia today, what would you look at and say, "This is what has changed, this was the change." And where do you see this is going in the near future that we have?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So what I think was the most drastic change inside Russia was not necessarily something that occurred in the military or foreign policy situation. Though obviously, the Russians got a much more realistic assessment of the limitations of their military capabilities and at the inefficacy of the Serdyukov Reforms that followed the Georgian war. And Russia had to recalibrate its foreign policy more towards the non-West than towards the West.

But notwithstanding those changes in the security international spheres, the biggest change occurred domestically, internally, inside Russia. Effectively, we saw the locus of opposition to Vladimir Putin, and the biggest threat to his leadership not come from the liberal opposition or the street protestors who went to the streets in 2012 of Bolotnaya Square, not the Alexei Navalnys, not the Vladimir Kara-Murzas and the like, but more coming from the elites, coming from the war hawks, coming from the people like Yevgeny Prigozhin, Kadyrov, people who are critical of the way the Russia administrate defense and the Russian military is prosecuting this war effort.

Not from those who want the war to end, but from those who want the war to be fought better. And that's quite interesting, quite extraordinary. So Vladimir Putin managed to suppress all remnants of the liberal opposition, create what appeared to be a totalitarian structure, only to add the seed... Or at least give the illusion of seeding some of that totalitarian authority to these hawks on the right and to the nationalists. And the most striking example of this session and Russia's transition to some kind of a delegative or hybrid totalitarian regime were the civilian infrastructure strikes that were launched from late October.

They served no military purpose, they were a waste of precision missiles, but they did satisfy that group, and that seems to be something that Russia has to follow. And the other thing was conscription and mobilization, something Putin was very reluctant to do, but something that he ultimately had to do to appease that group. But Russian society has been remade and transformed effectively in terms of whether you're loyal or disloyal to this war. Passive support for this war is no longer enough, you need to be actively supportive of it.

But we've also seen a massive transformation of the elite structure. So this has been quite fascinating, how Russian society is mobilized and united around the military intervention to a greater extent than any point since the Second World War. And also how Vladimir Putin created a totalitarian system by snuffing out liberal dissent, only to find that he's ceding some of his power potentially to threats coming from within the elites.

Oren Kesler:

One of the elements that we've seen is that some people say the war is no longer serving Putin, while there is another school of thought that say the war is currently, as it is, being run and currently there is a need by Putin for this war to continue in order to maintain his power.

What would you say? Would you say that the war is currently serving Putin needs to maintain his regime? Acknowledging that the war did not go well to him and not according to his plans, or are we at the point that the war is actually posing a threat to his regime, and we might lead to some sort of a coup or some sort of a counter-movement against him in order to push him away?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

I don't think that the war is necessarily posing a threat to his regime because I've just said the anti-war protestors and the people who are even disenfranchised or just upset with socioeconomic conditions and casualties are not going to be showing active opposition, or coming to the streets or displaying their aversion to what's happening over here. If anything, you may not see that much enthusiasm for the war coming from people in the ages of 18 to 40.

But in general, the mood when you look at opinion surveys is passivity and apathy. So what you see is enthusiastic support for the war amongst people who lived through the Soviet era, even those who live through and remember the Soviet War in Afghanistan somehow are not applying that filter of that experience to the current conflict.

And then the people under 40, it's mostly indifference, passive opposition in a smaller group of younger nationalists who actually are supporting this. So there really isn't a threat coming from below to them. Also, amongst the elites, I mean the war is a good way to keep elite dissent in check because he can easily label anybody who challenges him as a fifth column if he chooses, or use the discreditation of the military and the 15 years in prison and some of the other emergency measures that have been imposed to persecute and crack down on dissent. Or he can allow dissent and the feuds between these different ministries to fester, where Putin looks like the only statesman.

So when you see of Yevgeny Prigozhin attacking Shoigu's son-in-law, attacking the Ministry of Defense, attacking Gerasimov, the MOD having a credit battle with the Wagner group, they all look like relatively like immature squabbling amongst each other, and Putin still looks like the president on the top who's holding the reins of power. So I think that some of this internecine squabbling actually suits Vladimir Putin and the threat from below isn't there.

And also, I believe that the war needs to be sustained right now for the foreseeable future for Putin to really maintain his power because if the war ends, there's going to be a focus on the fact that during his fourth term, he was elected in 2018 again with a focus on socioeconomic issues. The first major test to his regime were the pension reform protests. And he hasn't delivered on improving the economy or strengthening the position of the Russian middle class. And his other major legacy, which is Russian military might coming out of Syria and also where Russian standing in the world had been indefinitely eroded by the failures in the Ukraine.

And also, no matter how much he spends as a hybrid, total war in the West, growing isolation from the international community and Russia's being seen as a discredited pariah state. So he has to keep this war going, keep people distracted, to keep people focused on us to prevent people from acknowledging that he's not only failed to deliver on his fourth term promises, he's also undone most of the supposed achievements that he had created during his third term.

Oren Kesler:

Looking at the war, and looking at the potential ending of the war, do you think that the current Chinese-Ukraine peace plan that is being discussed... And we've seen a little bit here and there, some headlines in the news. Do you think that has any chance of signaling a light at end of the tunnel? Or signaling some sort of a movement towards some process of peace between Russia and Ukraine? Or do you think that's basically just going to get stuck at the headline space?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So I think that China's position on this war has been obviously quite interesting. I think that the Chinese probably ideally would've wanted to have seen Russia win quickly, because that would've been a sign that Russia is a military counterweight or at least a military adjacent counterweight to the West. And Ukraine that was isolated which had a proxy regime led by somebody like Viktor Medvedchuk or Oleg Tsaryov or somebody in that ilk, which was isolated like Belarus, would've allowed China to swoop in, lead the reconstruction, seize the rare earth metal, seize a lot of the agricultural assets and other things that are within its territory.

The Chinese also... Now that goal has failed, they're not really that invested in Russia succeeding in the small, granular scale. They don't really care what the balance of forces they think are in Donetsk or in Zaporizhzhia or in Kherson, but the most important thing they don't want to see happen is to see Russia completely fail because if Russia completely fails, it will become more dependent on China, which may come with benefits.

Though, I think we've overestimated a degree to which China's been purchasing discounted oil. There was actually a recent study that came out today that showed Chinese oil purchases on average have been not that different from the West in terms of pricing. So that's just one thing I want to draw attention to.

But it would also become a warning shot to anybody who might want to attempt this kind of revisionist conflict in the future, and will strengthen the hand of America quite substantially. So this peace plan should be viewed as China trying to nudge Russia towards potential negotiations while it still can and before it loses more territory and loses more to war... Would lose its progressing position further. So I think it's more of a message to Russia, a signal to Russia that is actually a sincere effort to promote peace because it's really short on specifics.

The only measure that the Ukrainians would be able to rally behind is Chinese support for state sovereignty, but that's more of a state sovereignty is meaningless if you're not actually condemning the violation of sovereignty to begin with, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And the rest of it are all platitudes. So humanitarian corridors, Black Sea Grain deal, those are the things that have already been in action, and other things like an immediate ceasefire are exactly lifted from China's peace plans from other conflicts, like Libya, like Syria, like Yemen. They've announced very similar kinds of political solutions in the past, without much teeth. And I suspect that it's going to be the same in this case.

The only Western leader who seems to be actually taking the Chinese peace plan somewhat seriously and perhaps unsurprisingly to those who have followed his maneuvers over the past few years is Emmanuel Macron.

But Germany certainly is not taking it very seriously with the new, more hawkish orientation of Pistorius alongside Baerbock and the West in general is shunning it, and the collective non-West is predictably rallying around it because they see some kind of generic, both sides are at fault solution as being neutral and being somehow pro-peace. That's why countries like Iran, countries like Kazakhstan and others have endorsed it.

China is also using this both sides are at fault narrative to strengthen its narrative messaging in the global South, that NATO expansion and bloc confrontations and bloc politics are a threat to international stability.

And that's something that's quite popular in Africa, the Middle East, and in swathes of the Indo-Pacific region. And why it's doing that is to not only promote and amplify Russian narratives against the US, but also to build soft power and to build an international opinion about NATO's financial creation of an alliance of sorts, or an encirclement of China in the Indo-Pacific region in its own sphere. So I think that this is largely symbolic, for the reasons I've said.

Oren Kesler:

Moving a little bit from the internal situation in Russia, the Chinese negotiation plans to the battlefield itself, one of the greatest discussions that we've seen among our experts is, are we witnessing the spring Russian offensive taking place right now in failing, or are we going to see a Russian spring offensive taking place in the spring? Hence the recruitment and the establishment of forces and so on. Where are you in this debate? Are we seeing the offensive that was supposed to be back in spring already took place did not succeed, or is that something that is a signal to come about what are we about to see?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So great question, but I'd probably take a middle ground in this certain issue. And because I think that the Russians have learned one thing from the first year of the conflict, and that's you can't launch a multi-axis defensive with insufficient manpower. So when the Russians first started this war, right, they attacked Kiev, they attacked Donbas, they attacked Kharkiv, they tried to land-lock Ukraine on the Black Sea. They advanced from the Crimea axis, the Donbas axis, the Belarusian axis all at once with a military invasion border force of 150,000 to 170,000 troops. And they suffered heavy casualties, humiliating setbacks in Kiev and elsewhere.

Sergey Surovikin may no longer be the dominant force within the Russian military. He's been demoted by Valery Gerasimov to number two. But one thing the Surovikin did do was change the military strategic culture inside Russia during his time as commander from October to January. And really placed an emphasis on centralization of the command structure, as well as advocating for single axis or maybe at most two axes of advance at any given time.

So that's why I think that the spring offensive coming from Russia will be largely revolving around what we're already seeing. So that's why I think the spring offensive has already begun. So the focus on Donetsk, the aggressive focus on converting the small victory in Soledar to a bigger victory into Bakhmut and then much more elusory victories and Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, and also making sure that Russia does not do multiple access offensives and drain its resources, but also deploy substantial amounts of resources towards defense. That was another thing the Surovikin started advocating, was the building of fortifications. In the other bank of Kherson, in Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia, very crucial supply line, as well as Luhansk, where the Ukrainians are making gains.

But they may be still a surprise in the hat about where the second axis of the spring events that might emerge. So they may not do multiple five or six axes at once, and it's unlikely the second axis is unlikely to be Kyiv, but it might be somewhere like trying to take an offensive on Zaporizhzhia City, for example.

So if the Ukrainians are focusing their counter-offensive on Svatove-Kreminna and Luhansk on trying to detach Crimea from Russia with long range strikes on places like Mariupol, like the Ukrainians have said, and on the other bank of Kherson, they may not be attacking Zaporizhzhia as much, so the Russians might try to launch an attack on Zaporizhzhia City. We've seen Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian proxy administrator, suggests that that could be possible at some point in April.

Alternatively, the Ukrainian strike on Melitopol, they might go and try to recapture Kherson. So there'll likely be a primary axis of the Russian offensive in the spring that's already began focusing on Donetsk. There'll be a second axis as well and that will be determined by the conditions on the ground, and that might become clear in April. So the offensive has largely began but the last 20 or 30% of it is probably still a work in progress and yet to be seen.

Oren Kesler:

Moving from the Russian side to the Ukrainian side. How likely are we going to see them being able to push the envelope for their own counter-offensive without pushing the envelope of targeting those infrastructures targeted within Russia and other targets that might be a bit too sensitive, pushing a little bit, poking the bear a little bit too much, how much can we see that? Something like that and are we likely to see a Ukrainian counter-offensive without doing that?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

I think the most likely Ukrainian counter-offensive is going to be a hybrid counter-offensive where obviously they're dealing with maneuvering the frontline situation on the ground in their favor, and also making short range and long range strikes into Russian occupied territory and into Russian territory itself. So the Ukrainian counter-offensive will probably advance on... And I've debated some of the axes in which it could advance already, like on Kherson, on Melitopol, on Luhansk.

They may not be able to combine multiple axes of advance with a new Russian conscription and new additional Russian manpower, but they'll probably try to do at least two. Like in the spring and then in the summer, they did Kharkiv and Kherson at the same time. They might try to do two from those that I've just listed.

And then they will also want to create the image inside Russia and create the insecurity and the vulnerability inside Russia that occupied territory is really occupied territory. These next regions are not yours. They really belong to us and your stay here is temporary. That's good for morale inside Ukraine because it shows that they're deoccupying, and it shows that they're resisting it and also causes irrational decision making and rattles and it unsettles the Russian proxies who are sitting there.

So just the very fear of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kherson is already allegedly causing two Russian administrators in Kherson villages to leave to Crimea over the course of the past 48 hours and to launch out random attacks therefore on Russian military assets in Melitopol as a precursor to advancing on the area, and also in places like Mariupol, in Makiv, in Makiivka, like we see deeper into Donetsk and Crimea. So they will be launching attacks on those areas. There'll be fewer, but a select range attacks that will occur across the border into Russian Federation proper.

So we'll be seeing likely attacks on Belgorod. We saw Vadym Skibitsky actually single out Belgorod yesterday as an area where the Ukrainians are going to ramp up their attacks. And we've seen hawks in Russia like Igor Strelkov Girkin even talk about a Belgorod front, euphemistically poking at the fact that the Russians aren't campaigning or defending their own territory properly.

And a smaller number of longer-range attacks, maybe like we've seen in Ryazan on the air bases or on Russian military infrastructure in Belarus, like the partisan attack we saw allegedly take place earlier this week.

And there just was something that broke over the past two hours. I don't know how many of you have seen it, a UAV targeting French and civilian infrastructure in Kolomna, 110 kilometers from Moscow. So we'll see a largely focus in Ukrainian attacks on the Russian-occupied areas to make them feel like they're less in control of them and sporadic selective attacks on Russian airfields and military infrastructure elsewhere to degrade Russia's military capacity and also to divert some of Russia's air defenses, some of Russia's military equipment towards homeland security and away from the front lines.

Oren Kesler:

Before we move into questions about the global security architecture and the impact the war has on it, specifically related to Russia, one of the questions we have received from the crowd was about related to the Black Sea and that was, what are the anticipated risks for the shipping industry in the Black Russian-occupiedSea looking at least mid-2023 within the conflict and within the... We just discussed. So this will be the last tactical question, so to speak, before we move to the more geopolitical and political by Russia. So how do you see that? What are going to be the risks for the shipping industry in the Black Sea looking into this year ahead?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So great question. I think obviously much depends on the future and the sustainability of the Black Sea Grain export deal. It's obviously being placed on probation every four months. So question is, do the Russians keep renewing it as they have done? Because obviously the last time around there was so much brinkmanship about the Black Sea Grain export deal, which other Russians even temporarily suspend their involvement and they cited a whole range of factors and a whole range of grievances. One was that Russian fertilizer was not really entering international markets adequately because of Western sanctions.

Now... Was Ukrainians allegedly with... As they claimed, with British support, were targeting Russian military infrastructure in the Black Sea that was being used to safeguard the grain deal. So the attacks on Crimea were a problem and also, they were just pointing out that the grain ships could be used as conduits for arms supplies.

So all three of those narratives and those conspiracies that were used to justify the initial suspension of the Black Sea Grain deal remain very present in the Russian state media, amongst Russian pro-war telegram channels, especially those aligned with Prigozhin. And the more we see any sanctions or any SWIFT related disruptions in agricultural produce or economic and commercial interactions at large, the sanctions issue will be brought up.

They'll also start bringing up the narrative that the Ukrainians are only giving and reselling grain to rich countries, not to Africa and not to the poorer countries. And any Ukrainian strikes on Crimea, which will be part of the counter events like we just discussed, will bring the point of view that you see Ukraine and the West are actually threatening the grain deal and we're trying to protect it. So I think that all the risk factors that led to the initial suspension are still there.

Russia might pull another temporary suspension or brinkmanship that then disrupts the flow of grain and disrupts the flow of traffic, and people don't know that the deal's going to be renewed for sure. It slows down the supply of grain, the supply of shipping, that's an important thing. Another more passive tactic that Russia can use short of a suspension is a stalling tactic on inspections. So basically ships load themselves up with grain and get stuck at the Turkish port because of the joint monitoring mechanism and Russia takes a month to approve ships for inspection.

And we've already seen that kind of stalling tactic take root even since they've renewed the Black Sea Grain export deal. So there's a risk of brinkmanship and the risk of these kind of arbitrary, delayed inspections really creating problems for the Black Sea Grain deal's implementation.

And then of course there is the issue of mines. The Western countries are starting, one-by-one to start taking the issue of demining Ukraine seriously. I mean Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said very very emphatically it could take 10 or 15 years for landmines to be removed and other similar discussions of a sea mines being removed have been taken more literally by Western governments. We saw Canada, for example, give $7.5 million to the demining, but it caused the EU, the US, do something similar. Obviously, the Ukrainians are reticent about completely demining the Black Sea because they want to make sure that the Russians find it as hard as possible to launch the amphibious landing on Odessa.

But the destruction of Moskva and the fact that the Russians are struggling in Donetsk and the occupied regions that they've already claimed, let alone moving towards Odessa, has probably eased those fears for now that they'll probably go along with some kind of demining if they have Western pressure on it.

So I don't think the demining issue is as big a one in the longer term. So obviously it needs to be resolved for the safety of ships. The biggest X factor is whether the Russia's brinkmanship and inspections that are recklessly timed cause panic in the markets and disrupt and cause delays in grain shipments. The Ukrainian infrastructure minister, who I spoke to at a back channel at a conference several months back, was making those issues precisely the main ones for the grain deal. This was before the whole ruckus that we saw in October.

Oren Kesler:

So we have a few questions from the audience. I'm going to get to them in a few minutes. I'm still going to read a few of the questions we've received from the audience at home before this webinar. But one of the things that has been a theme that emerged consistently in the question is the global security architecture when it comes to the impact the war have on Russia and Russia's role in it. You are the author of a book about Russia in Africa. You mentioned Russia in Syria, Russia in Libya, obviously what we call the near abroad for Russia, i.e. The Central Asia countries, such as Kazakhstan, those countries are also boiling up. So what kind of a security architecture are we going to be looking at in a year, two years from now? Looking at what's going on in Ukraine and how is that going to impact Russia's role within that security architecture?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

That's a really, really good question. I mean, obviously the Russians have framed this war as some kind of a revision as a post-Cold War security architecture that they believed enabled the American unipolarity and all of its excesses, like the military interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya, as well as in general the construction of a rules-based international world order where the West makes the rules and the non-West is forced to accept them.

So the Russians are viewing this war as a means of overturning the unipolar order, as a means of overturning American hegemony. And the prominent Russian officials like Sergey Lavrov, Dmitry Medvedev have actually articulated this as one of the goals of the war. And they especially started articulating this after April.

So after they lost in Kiev, they had to start scrambling to come up with other reasons why this war was still a long-term success and this is a hybrid war with NATO and one of them was, we're launching this war to overturn and create a more just and fair world order. In practice, however, I think that there's going to be several geopolitical shifts that I think we should be noticing and watching and focusing on in the coming months. The first, obviously, is the unassailable consolidation of the transatlantic alliance in the United States and Europe and with Europe finally taking gradually and incrementally taking more of a responsibility for its own defense.

Though, all those obviously still heavily reliant on the American security umbrella and the inclusion of Finland and Sweden into NATO as well as the accessions or potential accessions of countries in the Western Balkans and the applications of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to the European Union, however long that might take, will lead to a consolidation of that Western Bloc. Moreso with Europe being a coalescent in some ways more dependent on the United States, but also in some ways more independent. So that's just an interesting geopolitical shift.

Multipolarity, as the Russians have defined it, will probably be more of a symbol rather than a reality. The question right now that we're seeing is that Russia's influence in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Indo-Pacific region, in Latin America has not atrophied because countries have not sanctioned Russia or even if they've condemned the Russian invasion, they haven't cut off business as usual relations with Russia. But that does not mean that those countries are going to be willing to invest in Russia in any large quantity or view Russia as a reliable partner in the securities sphere anymore, or really whether Russia's initiatives, like de-dollarization, an alternative to SWIFT. Or any kind of challenges to the US economic order and get what the security institutions with the Shanghai Corporation organization will be more than just forums for people with like-minded views to share ideas and actually turn into more durable and stronger security blocks.

If anything, we've seen two of Russia's flagship projects in the multipolar order, the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, be effectively neutralized because Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, treaty allies of Russia, are not even backing Russia's conduct in Ukraine. The only one that is the Belarus and bilateral consultations of Belarus have superseded anything in the CSTO.

The CSTO also has shown itself not to be very effective in promoting peace or promoting any kind of security solutions or alternatives in this conflict. And the Eurasian Economic Union has been derailed by secondary sanctions. So if anything, multipolarity as Russia has advertised and framed it, has become more of an illusion than a reality. It's more that countries in the non-West are not willing to join the West in condemning Russia, rather than supporting the creation of a new world order. That's why I don't think the world order transformations will be that drastic from that, but it's more the reorientation of the US-Europe relationship is arguably more important than, I think, the broader world order transitions.

Oren Kesler:

Moving from world order, I'm going to take one of the questions here that was asked by the audience, and I'm reading here from the questions, how do you stop in the term Putin's nuclear Russian roulette? Meaning we're looking back a few months ago, if you recall. I think everybody recall. Yeah, everybody thought that it's just a matter of days before Putin is going to go and show some exhibition of Russian tests slash use slash something nuclear. And how likely are we going to see that happen? And again, how is that can be deter slash can be stopped or at the very least can be put in a place that is not going to be showing up again. So how do you deter the Putin's nuclear Russian roulette?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

Well, nuclear blackmail has long been one of the most trusted tactics in Russia's arsenal to deter any kind of Western or NATO moves that it doesn't like to see happen. We just have to go back to 2008 when the Bucharest Summit was being held and Georgia and Ukraine were about to join NATO and the Bush administration was discussing about a missile shield and defense system in countries in Central Europe. And we saw the Russians relay and nuclear threats against Poland at a military level, so... To try to prevent and try to disrupt these developments.

So the Russians have used nuclear blackmail and nuclear threat in this war in exactly the same way. They hope that it would deter Western arms transfers to Ukraine, or at the very least the transfers of heavy weaponry, like tanks or down the line now, fighter jets or long range missiles, the nuclear brinkmanship strategy has been effective I think in deterring some long range missiles, but there's even a debate on that now.

There's a debate in the West about whether to send jets and the question is not really whether we're afraid of Russia using nukes, but we're more afraid of the fact that the Ukrainians may not just be able to train and get the jets in time. The jet stocks for NATO countries may not be enough and tanks, it's a non-issue because the tanks have arrived in large numbers to the point at which we may have two fully functioning tank brigades in the Ukrainian army.

So one year in, Russia's nuclear blackmail and nuclear brinkmanship, which is their time tested tactic, has largely failed in its primary objective, which is to prevent the West from moving large inflows of weapons on the ground. Obviously, the Russians might flip and argue that it may have led to a prevention of a direct NATO-Russia conflict and NATO getting involved with boots on the ground, but they invent their own conspiracies about NATO mercenaries on the ground too. So I mean they can't really even come with that public argument because of what they come with. So I think it's mostly about that and that's largely failed.

I think that the nuclear risk, the peak moment of danger was probably on or around August or September of last year because Putin had a clear choice. It was either the war was going disastrously, they had lost in Kharkiv, they're about to lose Kherson. They didn't have the manpower to fight a conventional war. So he had two choices, one was conscription, while one was taking a nuclear gambit.

I think he's opted towards conscription, mobilization and towards going that route for as long as possible and fighting this war conventionally. Maybe because of pressure from China and from other friendly countries about what the consequences of this might be. And maybe because he views a long war with conscription and mobilization of society as the best way to withhold his regime.

Either way, I think he's probably made a firmer decision not to use nuclear weapons. It doesn't mean that he won't be making these threats again, and the Russian officials won't be talking about the nuclear doctrine all the time. But I just think we've passed the moment of peak danger on the nuclear question right now. Obviously things might change. If the boundaries move past February 24th borders and Crimea is at risk, then we might be seeing a new moment of danger. But at this moment, I think the risk is receded.

Oren Kesler:

One of the implications that we have seen this war had was on the relations between Russia and the Central Asian republics, i.e. the Kazakhstan and this kind of like. One of the questions that have being asked by the audience, so how would that impact those countries relations actually with the EU in terms of looking ahead? Do you think it will have an impact? Do you think if there will be an impact, what kind of an impact that we're going to see?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So with regards to Central Asia, it's really interesting to see how Central Asia has responded to this war because none of the Central Asian countries have actually endorsed Russia's invasion.

We've seen Kazakhstan, for example, really be a major disappointment for the Russians because in January of 2022, the Russians of course authorized the most expansive use of CSTO force to protect Tokaj, and the production in Tokaj was not really against protests of a scale that would've imminently threatened his regime.

There was really no risk of an actual Euro or an actual orange revolution happening in inside Kazakhstan at that time. Most of these protests were based on socioeconomic grievances, rising prices, they've been dispersed across the country. The Russians really stepped in in a drastic way to show loyalty to Tokayev against his perceived elite rivals, and to show that they were willing to go all out and defend him, probably with the caveat and with the expectation that when Russia went into Ukraine, Kazakhstan would back the Ukrainians and the other Central Asian countries that trade with it, would follow and would move in that direction.

When Kazakhstan talked about a peace settlement and withdrawal from all sides, they allowed pro-Ukrainian demonstrations to take place. They shipped oil to Germany, they became a refuge for anti-mobilization protestors. That was a massive, massive shock and disappointment to the Russians and has led to some outrageous rhetoric coming from Russian commentators about denestifying Kazakhstan, about even nuking Kazakhstan. So it's been pretty much a major souring of that critical treaty alliance.

And the other countries, it's been a very similar story. I mean Uzbekistan and Russia were never treaty allies to begin with, but then they do cooperate still on issues relating to Afghan security. But the Uzbeks were really rankled by the long term group's efforts to overtly recruit foreign fighters from there. So that was a big problem for them.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which is so dependent on Russian remittances, also are not going along with the war, which is a major disappointment for the Russians because they've gone along with past Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria and other places.

So we saw Tajikistan's president in particular, Emomali Rahmon, talk about how we need to respect our allies. We want respect. That was a very famous video clip. And there's a portion of Tajik society that would of course be sympathetic towards Russia because they remember how Russia ended the Tajik civil war. They see Russia as some kind of a stabilizer, but public opinion in Central Asia is largely against this war. And it's because of the fact that it's disrupted inter-regional trade.

It has created secondary sanctions, barriers that are harming the middle classes and anybody with any purchasing power in those countries. And it's also seen as a potential forewarning that your sovereignty is always at risk. If Russia is allowed to win in Ukraine, they might do the same thing to us. So it's been really bad for Russian soft power in the post-Soviet space.

The EU can invest obviously in these countries and try to pry them away from Russia. But the best thing to do at this moment, is to let Russia shoot itself in the foot and let Russia's image deteriorate further and then make engagement with these countries because we don't want to be... As much as we want to contain Russia, we also don't want to be propping up kleptocrats like Rahmon for the foreseeable feature and giving them too much more ammunition economically. So we should be careful in how we approach these regions because Russia's its own worst enemy right now.

Oren Kesler:

Before we move on, I have one more question, which is about the internal affairs slash the domestic politics within Russia. We'll get to that theme again. We're moving between themes here very fast, which is brilliant, but I know it might be a little bit disorganized. So I want to stay on the same lane for a little bit. One of the question we have here is actually from the US perspective and in support of Ukraine, and the question goes, how long will the West, especially the US, be prepared to bankroll Ukraine? What kind of settlement serves Western interests?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So that's a great question about the United States in support for Ukraine.

I think that the overwhelming majority of American public opinion is aligned towards supporting Ukraine for really as long as necessary at this point. I mean, and this same thing that's true for most European countries, aside from perhaps Hungary, and sometimes we look at opinions and surveys in Greece, you might see something contradictory, but in general, inflation, rising prices, rising food prices, rising energy prices have not had the impact that Russia assumed that they would on Western public resolve to support continuing this war.

That's why I'm very skeptical of the arguments that if there is a Republican White House victory in 2024, and there's some elements within the Republican party, like the Matt Gaetz' and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and the political stars who are making rumblings about Ukraine and US support for it, whether those rumblings will actually lead to a drastic change in American policy, I think much less likely than the media is hyping it up to be because of the level of popular support and genuine bipartisan support there. So that I think is something that's quite important and interesting to keep in mind and to consider.

And so I think the resolve is likely to remain for the foreseeable feature. Within the Biden administration, I'm seeing three different perspectives come forward. On the one hand, you see Sullivan and Millie more vocally really be more open at least to the idea of negotiations and dialogue. We're seeing people like Victoria Nuland on the other side of the spectrum really picking on unsurprisingly a much more hawkish point of view, even her being the architect of the sanctioning of Chinese companies that have aided Russia being the latest example. And then Antony Blinken dancing between these two different points of view, talking about supporting Ukraine firmly to liberated from all February 24th borders.

But back in Ukraine, if Ukraine wants to liberate Crimea. Yeah, of course Ukraine wants to liberate Crimea. Zelensky has been talking about that and Ukrainians have been talking about that for nine years now.

So it's a bit of a cop out there and a bit of imbalance between those two different factions. So I think that there will be genuine disagreements and debates largely behind the scenes in the Biden administration that will play out over the course of the next year. But the forces that are continuing to support arms to Ukraine will likely predominate.

I think the key decision, which was like on the Abrams tanks deliveries, even if they won't come immediately, that encouraged other NATO allies to supply leopards and other tanks to Ukraine. The Americans might make a similar kind of determination on fighter jets in the near future that encourages other countries to deliver them. So I think that we're going to be more likely to see landmark American decisions that encourage allies to escalate and increase the transfer of arms, rather than American pressure on the allies to rein them in. And Americans slapping the French and the Germans on the wrist if they ever go back to their, "Let's have a ceasefire" impulses.

Oren Kesler:

You spoke about Crimea. Before I go again into the internal politics, I want to keep it on this lane of questioning. In many of our simulations, the scenario of Ukraine liberating Crimea was the grand finale for the... Basically, this is the end of the Russian War. This will be the blow that will basically will force Russia to admit this is a defeat. One, do you agree with that? It's a scenario that has emerged several times during our simulations, and two, would Russia respond to that in a way that could be unconventional, let's say?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

Well, I think it would for all intents and purposes to be the end of the war in Ukraine, and it would be such a drastic loss to Putin's legacy because in public opinion surveys before they really got completely cooperative by the state, we started seeing the Crimea annexation being viewed along with the military modernization as his two top achievements of Russia from 2010 to 2020. Obviously the military modernization has failed drastically with the war in Ukraine, and lots of Crimea would be a complete dismantling of Putin's legacy of the second half of his presidency.

So it's obviously something that he wants to avoid at all costs. And the Ukrainians obviously are talking about extending the war beyond and talking about the dismemberment of Russia or the nuclearization of Russia. We've seen people like Oleksiy Danilov coming up with that. I mean, that is nationalist red jingoism for the home audience and to keep people wanting to punish and get back at Russia and see similar with taking Russia off the UN Security Council.

There's a genuine legal debate about whether Russia is the Soviet successor state and what its role should be as arguably the world's biggest violator of sovereignty right now participating in an institution that's aimed at guarding the sovereignty of states, but those are all more conceptual issues.

The end of the war will be the end of the relationship with Crimea if that does happen. So I agree with that assessment, and Crimea is surprisingly vulnerable. We've already seen it being vulnerable to long-range Ukrainian strikes repeatedly from the Kerch base to the Sacky air base. We've seen the Russians move some of the Black Sea fleet over because they were afraid about stationing it too close to Crimea because of the fear of the Moscow attack. We're seeing fortifications being built on or around the area, and even hardliners in Russia, like Russian MP Andrey Gurulyov say that he's the guy who wants to nuke NATO forces in Poland, and nuke Britain. So this is one of the most hawkish members you can imagine, and he's saying, "Oh, Crimea relatively was relatively unsafe for a period, but we've taken measures to save it and now it's fine." So the Russians are definitely thinking about this scenario, and Crimea is vulnerable to a Ukrainian counter attack.

And there is a risk obviously, that the Russians, if Putin felt that there were agitations and pressure coming from the hawks at home from the Prigozhin and the likes or nationalists that could be an imminent risk of a coup. He would pray... I think he could take a gamble at using a non-conventional response.

Maybe a tactical nuclear strike, not in a major population center or a city, but a strategically important area of terrain that forces the Ukrainians to demilitarize and pull back. So we've seen simulations about whether he'll do a tactical nuke on a place like Snake Island or a tactical nuke on a place like near the front lines, but not where the population clusters are.

I think that there is a small but not insignificant risk of that happening, if the Crimea situation is under threat. But more likely, I think given the consequences that would likely be leading to Russia being almost isolated from the world economy and other things like this that could come with that, maybe Putin may not even take that step.

Oren Kesler:

One of the experts I spoke to recently said that one of the greatest accomplishment Putin may knowledgeably or not knowledgeably achieve, was the establishment and the rise of the Wagner group and apparently that being as part of the competitor to the Russian military and army. One of the questions we received from the audience related to that is if you can comment on the relationship between Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin and I hope I say his name correctly. Probably I'm not. Prigozhin. Butchered that name. And if you could talk a little bit about their relationship and about how is that relationship evolving, acknowledging that the Wagner group currently is not succeeding in the mission and task was that was given to them by Putin.

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

Well, Prigozhin's rise to power and rise to influence is really an extraordinary story. This is a man who started his career in organized crime in 1978, 1979, along with his colleague, Alexey Bushman, and he was involved in armed robberies. He spent 11 years in prison and he became a hotdog vendor, and now he's one of the most powerful people inside Russia.

So it's a remarkable story. It's a story that is based on personal patronage, unlike other oligarchs, who without the Kremlin would have control over substantial sectors of the Russian economy or benefited from privatization. Prigozhin's wealth, Prigozhin's power, Prigozhin's influence is inextricably linked to his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Whether they're friends or not is a debatable thing. We do know that they did cross paths and Saint Petersburg in the late 1990s when Putin was a frequent guest at the New Island restaurant, and Prigozhin was it's restaurateur and head chef and the Concord Catering Company owned it.

Putin himself has denied having any kind of a personal friendship with Prigozhin. He was asked about it I think in an interview around the time of the Mueller investigation, and he says, " He's one of many people that I know inside Russia, I have meetings with lots of people." So he doesn't really draw too much attention to it, but it's clearly that they do have a longstanding personal relationship, and Putin trusts Prigozhin as somebody who can do deniable interventions on his behalf and deniable activities on his behalf, and also circumvent institutions.

So he doesn't really necessarily trust the Russian ministry of defense, starting with Gerasimov so much. We've seen it by him speaking to local and lower level generals, lower level commanders on the front lines, and getting their own perspective himself as the war has progressed. And also he wants to outsource some of the security responsibilities to figure his loyalty.

So Prigozhin serves a purpose for him as being an alternative to the existing institutions, yeah but they do have a long-standing relationship regardless of where it serves. I think that he'll be kept in the firmament for that reason and for some time.

But Prigozhin has made some major tactical mistakes I think, that are going to potentially limit and blunt the long-term growth of his influence. First, I think was going public so brazenly against so many people at once, attacking the Shoigu son-in-law, attacking Shoigu with a tyrant, attacking Gerasimov, attacking regional governors all over the place like Saint Petersburg governor, Alexander Beglov and others. Putin has not gone to dismiss or gone to marginalize any of the people that Prigozhin has been moving to criticize, even if Prigozhin is pushing for that. If anything, Prigozhin's favorite general, Sergei Surovikin has been demoted for Gerasimov, which is a real slap in the face for him.

So he's made a lot of enemies that will isolate his ability to build an elite coalition or an alternative power vertical inside Russia. And now he's presided very publicly over failures. He did manage to achieve victory in Soledar, but in Bakhmut all we're seeing is loss of prisoner recruitment, loss of heavy casualties, and a failure to take over the city after many, many months, and arguments and excuses that are wholly unconvincing. Like he wanted to create a meat grinder that will kill more Ukrainians than Russians or leopard tanks have shown up on the front lines when they just arrived four days ago, they're nowhere near. He's coming up with conspiracies and excuses that nobody believes.

So I think that Prigozhin's influence has grown because of this war, but he overplayed his hand in recent months that he now is probably going to be less of a threat to Putin or really less of a very powerful and decisive independent actor.

When I used to speak to Russian defense experts in the summer, they were saying, "We were dissatisfied with the Russian military except for Wagner. Wagner is the most effective fighting force." Now, Wagner has the same command structure problems, the same little morale, the same problems of poor training and poor logistics that the rest of the branches are. I don't think anyone would say that about Wagner now. So he's basically eviscerated the myth of Wagner.

But Wagner does play an important role for Russia's global power projection, especially in Africa, and also for getting access to oil and minerals that can circumvent Western sanctions and also finances war. So Wagner's activities in Africa have been somewhat more successful, but his public grandstanding against the Russian elites and his actions in Ukraine most recently are probably hurting Prigozhin's stature rather than helping him.

Oren Kesler:

One of the interesting insights that we had in one of the simulations we played a few months ago was about, this is no longer Putin's war, but this is a Russian leadership war, meaning that even if Putin is slash replace, assassinated or die naturally for natural causes, whoever's going to come afterwards is not likely to end the war for Russia. One, do you agree with that assessment? And two, do you see anything that change or might change in the Russian leadership in case something happens with Putin?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

I think absolutely. I think that this is the systemic problem that we're facing inside Russia, this expansionism and this aggressive foreign policy. It's not just the product of a single person like Vladimir Putin. So I would agree that yah, leadership changes without a full-fledged regime or systemic change will not really lead to a drastic change in policy because the successor is most likely to keep or maintain or have ties to the existing war. If it's somebody like Patrushev, if it's somebody like Dmitry Medvedev, there's going to be no change in this current war.

If anything, there may be a greater risk of more irrational tactics like the use of nuclear weapons, given these people's current ideologies and current volatility that we're seeing coming from them. So if anything, there's a risk that the successor could even be creating even more dangerous situations than what we have right now, and that's quite a concerning prospect.

So I think, yeah, it is going to be largely continued regardless of who's in power, unless there's systemic change in Russia. Keep it in mind, the Soviet War in Afghanistan was presided over by four General Secretaries before Gorbachev brought it to an end. And that will likely be the same thing that would happen in the case of leadership change in Putin for Ukraine.

Oren Kesler:

As we're short on time, I'm going to ask one more questions that I see here from the audience. There's a few more questions that we have received from home that I want to ask about China and Russia. So let's take it to what we call the international theme, i.e. Russia and Latin America, Russia and China. So we'll start with Russia and Latin America. The question from the audience is this, what about Russia links to presence in Venezuela and Cuba and the risk in the road to threat US?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

Sergei Ryabkov, the Deputy Foreign Minister made an alarming statement about this when the Russians were not getting what they wanted on NATO security guarantees, about no more expansion of the alliance and rolling back NATO's presence out of everywhere from Bulgaria and Romania and afterwards. And when they said that they would be able to potentially put bases or troops in Cuba and Venezuela. And that really caused some alarm in the United States. But no senior Russian official has actually echoed or repeated that threat since the war began. And the only people who are really advocating for this are real hardliners, like Alexander Dugin, who have talked about this. So the more people in the media and philosophers sphere rather than in the security policy sphere.

So I don't really think that the Russians are going to make any kind of military or military hardware movement towards Cuba and Venezuela to rattle or threaten the United States.

If they're going to move military hardware and assets somewhere, they're going to move it to Africa. We're already seeing them increase their presence of helicopters in Mali. Mali's got potential gold reserves that could fund this war. They might go into Burkina Faso and get their gold mines to fund this war.

They're going to put their resources, which are limited, in areas which could give them financial inflows to finance the war and going to Cuba and Venezuela is probably not really going to be the best path to be able to do that. So I don't think there's going to be any kind of a movement there, even if both countries are obviously relatively loyal in support for the Russian invasion. It's interesting though, that Cuba tends to abstain on resolutions relating to Russia rather than support them, which maybe is a sign of just how isolated Russia is at the moment.

Oren Kesler:

We spoke a little bit about the Chinese peace proposal. You talked and explained about that, but one of the main insights that we are repeatedly receiving through the simulations is if there's anyone who's gaining anything from this situation in Ukraine and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is China, that they have indeed increased not only their presence when it comes to their dominance over the relations with Russia, but also potentially in the future enjoy tremendously from the weakening of Russia. Where do you see this relations going between Russia and China? Where do you see the Chinese basically benefiting, and in what way maybe they're not going to be benefiting from the weakening Russian statuses as the aftermath of the conflict in Ukraine?

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

So yeah, as I said at the earlier point, I mean China probably prefers scenario would've been a Russian victory, and now that has not really been achieved in the sense that Putin envisioned that last February 24th. It's now been avoiding Russian collapse, and it's about making sure that Russia is dependent on China economically, but isn't a burden or some kind of an unstable liability on its borders.

That's why when I'm talking about that, that was just to recap what I said. And regards to how the future of Russia-China relations are going to go, I think that ideologically, I mean, look at the views of Chinese state media, Chinese intellectuals, Chinese officials, they're starting to view a lot of international situations quite similarly, whether it be the NATO expansion, whether it be American unilaterals, unilateral sanctions, they have a lot more normative and ideological groundings of this partnership.

But that normative and ideological talk and symbolic displays of solidarity, like an expansion of the array of joint military drills everywhere from Eurasia to the Indian Ocean is not really translating into the kind of cooperation that Russia really wants or needs.

For example, when Russia was short on aviation parts, they went to Turkey and India. China was very late to come in and didn't even give them the capacity that they wanted. Chinese state-owned companies are pausing some investments even in Russian energy because they're concerned about secondary sanctions. We're seeing with Huawei have some issues with their relocation of their offices to Kazakhstan. We're seeing also now the debate of a Chinese lethal and non-lethal military aid. I'm very skeptical of trying to supply lethal military aid on the scale that Iran done with regards to drones and missiles.

I think they could supply uniforms, they could supply extra food. They could supply things that help the war effort indirectly, but not really moving towards arms because they don't want to be seen as a party to this conflict. And China is seeing its arms manufacturers having an opportunity to compensate and capitalize on financial sanctions against Russian arms globally because those that won't export cannot export as much because of supply constraints and the use for the war and sanctions. The Chinese want to step in.

So that's why I don't think there's going to be a radical overhaul of the relationship, where these ideological and ideational synergies get converted into China and Russia really becoming full-fledged allies. China's going to do the minimum to prevent Russia of collapse, but not enough to really invest and prop up the Russian economy on its own, or really supply huge changing military assistance for the war effort.

Oren Kesler:

We are really at the end of the webinar. So I would say that the last question, it would be more of a comment from you to the audience. How would you summarize the main insights that you have? What would you like to conclude with? What would you like to people take away from this webinar, from the analysis that you have? What would be your conclusion? Let's put it this way.

Dr. Samuel Ramani:

Well, yeah, just an overall point of view is that it's interesting to see that the Russian military obviously failed to meet the expectations that were set to it. But also Russia's place in the world is now coming under increased question. Is it going to be able to remain a great power? Is it going to be reduced to the status of a regional power or is it going to be something in between?

In my book, Russia in Africa, and also to a lesser extent, my book Putin's War in Ukraine, I present the argument that Russia's future is out of a virtual great power. So it has the US Security Council veto seat. It has nuclear arsenals, largest in the world. It participates in institutions like the SDO or BRICS or through bilateral engagements with smaller countries looking like an alternative poll in the world order.

But in practice, it lacks the economic capability and the military might, and now the ability to really invest or the soft power to be able to actually exert anything near what a promise is. So it's all an image, it's all a facade. That was true even before the war, and now it's even more true now. So I think that Russia's future place in the world is probably being that, our virtual great power.

And obviously, another thing that I want to take away with and want to monitor very closely is how the domestic debates in Russia evolve once if the Ukrainians do manage to achieve a successful spring to autumn counter offensive and the boundaries of Russia's occupation are pushed past February 24th lines, what will be the nature of the elite debate over inside Russia? Will there be more of a general mobilization of society and creation of a war economy?

Like an all-out draft that's officially announced, a war economy that basically redirects much more production towards ammunition and towards domestic munitions production away from other sectors. Putin has faced pressure to make those moves, he shied away from them so far. That could be one of the big questions because it's got such profound implications for Russia's internal future going forward.


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