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

Updated: 3 days ago

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.