Kennan’s Warning on Ukraine
Ambition, Insecurity, and the Perils of Independence
At a White House ceremony on August 9, days after the U.S. Senate agreed in a near-unanimous vote to ratify the expansion of NATO to include Finland and Sweden, U.S. President Joe Biden highlighted how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had backfired on Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s getting exactly what he did not want,” Biden announced. “He wanted the Finlandization of NATO, but he’s getting the NATOization of Finland, along with Sweden.” Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a massive strategic blunder, leaving Russia militarily, economically, and geopolitically weaker.
Ukraine’s offensive in Kharkiv in September underscored the magnitude of Putin’s error. As Russian forces grew exhausted, losing momentum on the battlefield, Ukraine seized the initiative, dealing the Russian military a decisive blow. Ukraine’s battlefield successes revealed the extent of the rot in Putin’s army—the sagging morale, the declining manpower, the deteriorating quality of the troops. Instead of giving up, however, Putin responded to these problems by ordering a partial military mobilization, introducing tougher punishments for soldiers who desert or surrender, and moving forward with the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions. Putin reacted to Russia’s falling fortunes in Ukraine just as he did to its shrinking role on the world stage: dealt a losing hand, he doubled down on his risky bet. To Putin’s evident surprise, the war in Ukraine has accelerated long-standing trends pushing his country toward decline. Europe is moving to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, diminishing both the country’s leverage over the continent and the government revenues that depend heavily on energy exports. Unprecedented international sanctions and export controls are limiting Russia’s access to capital and technology, which will cause Moscow to fall even further behind in innovation. A year ago, we argued in these pages that reports of Russia’s decline were overstated and that Russia was poised to remain a persistent power—a country facing structural challenges but maintaining the intent and capabilities to threaten the United States and its allies. Putin’s disastrous invasion underscored the dangers of dismissing the threat from Russia, but it has also hastened the country’s decline. Today, Russia’s long-term outlook is decidedly dimmer.
Given these factors, there will be a strong temptation to downgrade Russia as a threat. That would be a mistake, and not just because the war has yet to be won. In Ukraine and elsewhere, the more vulnerable Moscow perceives itself to be, the more it will try to offset those vulnerabilities by relying on unconventional tools—including nuclear weapons. In other words, Russian power and influence may be diminished, but that does not mean Russia will become dramatically less threatening. Instead, some aspects of the threat are likely to worsen. For the West, recognizing that reality means abandoning any near-term hopes of a chastened Russia and maintaining support for Russia’s targets. That effort should begin in Ukraine: the United States and its allies must provide sustained support to Kyiv to ensure that Russia suffers a defeat. But even if Putin loses, the problem that Russia poses will not be solved. In many ways, it will grow in intensity. So, too, should the response to it.
The war in Ukraine has dealt a blow to Russia’s global economic influence. Russia’s GDP is set to contract by six percent over the course of 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund. And that could be just the beginning, as the full brunt of Western measures are yet to be felt. Western export controls will curtail Moscow’s access to key technologies and components, hobbling an economy that depends heavily on foreign inputs and know-how. Already there are signs of struggle in car manufacturing and other major commercial sectors in which Russian dependence on foreign components or parts is especially pronounced.
Moreover, Russia’s status as a major energy power is on shaky ground. To be sure, Europe faces challenges in securing alternatives to Russian energy imports in the coming decade. But over the long term, the political leverage that the Kremlin derives from energy exports will diminish. Western sanctions scheduled to take effect by the end of 2022 will block the issuance of commercial insurance for Russian tanker shipments, increasing the risks and costs of Russian oil transactions. The G-7, meanwhile, is imposing a price cap on the sale of Russian oil. Over time, the noose may tighten, forcing Russia to offer greater discounts for the purchase of its oil. There are growing signs of declining Russian exports and, hence, shrinking revenue, leading the Russian government to slash its budget in many departments by ten percent. Europe will steadily decrease its imports of Russian energy, giving Moscow less room to negotiate with other consumers, such as China and India. Russia has also hemorrhaged some of its best talent, including programmers, engineers, and information technology specialists, which will curtail its future competitiveness.
Although those factors will take a significant toll, the full extent of the looming economic contraction and its impact on Russia is unclear. The effects of sanctions and export controls will largely depend on the West’s success in enforcing them and Europe’s success in reducing its dependence on Russian energy. The Kremlin, for its part, will work hard to circumvent the restrictions and find workarounds to blunt their damage. Moscow will resort to trading goods illegally through networks that transit friendly countries, such as the Eurasian Economic Union states, and to working with countries such as China to jointly develop technologies. It will be difficult for Russia to access the large volume of components required to supply key sectors of its economy, such as the automotive industry, but it may be able to secure the specific technologies needed to sustain select weapons programs.
Rather than facing a total collapse, the Russian economy is likely headed toward scarcity, autarky, and a steady decoupling from the global economy. As conditions deteriorate, the Kremlin will grow more desperate, resorting to shadowy or illicit means to get by and flouting the rules that govern global commerce in which it no longer has a stake. The more marginalized and threatened the Kremlin becomes, the less predictable and restrained its behavior will be.
It is worth considering that before the war, Russia was already a relatively weak great power, with poor economic foundations for its global influence. Yet its ability to contest U.S. interests has often been greater than any raw economic indicators would suggest. Russia tends to punch above its weight and, though lacking in dynamism, is known for its resilience. The country has also lost its share of wars yet has remained a consequential actor in European security. With that track record, it would be unwise to assume that an economically weaker Russia will necessarily be less threatening to U.S. interests in the years to come.
The Russian military has been badly mauled in Ukraine. The war has consumed millions of artillery shells and worn out a massive quantity of Russian equipment, from artillery barrels to tank engines. More than 80,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the fighting. Mobilized personnel from Russian-held Ukrainian territories in Donetsk and Luhansk and volunteer fighters make up a significant percentage of the more recent losses, but many of Russia’s best troops were lost early in the war. At the same time as it faces personnel shortages, the Russian military is increasingly having to bring old equipment out of storage to outfit new volunteer units. Moscow has addressed these problems piecemeal, allowing its troops to muddle through, but that ultimately won’t resolve the fundamental problems as the quality of the force degrades. Mobilization may extend Russia’s ability to sustain the war, introducing a degree of uncertainty to the medium and long term, but it is unlikely to resolve the structural problems in Russia’s military performance. As Western export controls cut Russia off from key components such as computer chips and Western machine tools, armament programs have been delayed and Moscow has been forced to pursue expensive workarounds. These measures will reduce the quality and reliability of such parts in weapons systems and, over time, substantially weaken Russia’s defense industry.
Still, the West should not assume that the Russian military will be rendered harmless after its disastrous war with Ukraine. Russia is likely to find ways around the Western restrictions, especially given the difficulty of enforcing them. Moscow may not be particularly good at producing its own substitutes for imports, but it has a knack for skirting Western export controls. After its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia, despite an array of sanctions, still managed to maintain access to Western-made parts for many of its weapons. China may also work to lessen the pressure. Although Beijing has so far been reluctant to increase defense-military cooperation with Russia for fear of incurring U.S. penalties for violating sanctions, it is likely to find ways to support Moscow as the international spotlight moves away from Ukraine, including by providing computer chips and other crucial components.
What is more, the war has left untouched many of the Russian capabilities that most worry the United States and NATO. Russia remains a leader in integrated air defenses, electronic warfare, antisatellite weapons, submarines, and other advanced systems. Although it at first seemed that Russia had not used cyber-operations during its attack on Ukraine, according to an analysis by Microsoft, Russia did in fact conduct almost 40 destructive cyberattacks against Ukraine in the first three months of the invasion, including a devastating cyber-campaign across Europe that blocked Ukrainian access to commercial satellites. To the extent that Moscow exercised restraint on that front, it probably did so because Putin envisioned a swift victory and planned to occupy the country thereafter.
Last but not least, Russia still has a sizable nuclear arsenal—4,477 warheads, according to some estimates—that remains a significant factor shaping U.S. and NATO decision-making. Even as the Russian military invested more heavily in conventional weaponry, it maintained a capable tactical nuclear arsenal and poured billions of rubles into modernizing its strategic nuclear forces. Despite Russia’s conventional losses in Ukraine, its nuclear arsenal is a logical offset to its conventional vulnerability and poses a credible threat. Western policymakers, therefore, should not assume Russia can no longer endanger European security, nor should they imagine that Russia can’t recover its lost military capabilities. Russia retains considerable latent power, resilience, and mobilization potential even if the present regime is inept at capitalizing on those resources. There is a reason Russia features so prominently in the wars of the past several hundred years: the country frequently uses, misuses, and eventually restores hard military power.
To justify the war, the Kremlin has stoked a dark and ugly form of “patriotism” inside Russia. Putin and his propagandists have broadcast the message that the war in Ukraine is in fact a civilizational conflict with a West that seeks to keep Russia weak. They allege that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine and that the United States and Europe are out to break Russia apart. Although such anti-American rhetoric is not new—portraying the United States as an enemy has been a long-standing Putin tactic—it is growing angrier and more aggressive. This confrontational, anti-Western tone will continue as long as Putin is in power.
There are now renewed questions about Putin’s longevity in office, particularly after he called for a partial mobilization in September. Before that announcement, Putin had gone to great lengths to shelter politically consequential Russians from his war in Ukraine. The regime raised pensions to win over the country’s millions of retirees, insisted the “special military operation” was continuing “in accordance to the plan,” and disproportionately recruited people from Russia’s most impoverished regions to fight. Indeed, Putin sought Russians’ passive approval, and for many, life continued as normal. By declaring a partial mobilization, however, Putin has awakened Russian society to the grim realities of the war. His grip on power is weaker now than before his decision to call on Russians to prolong his misguided endeavor.
What comes after Putin is harder to predict. Some commentators have warned that Russia’s next leader could be even worse for the West. That is certainly possible, but that likelihood may be lower than many expect. Data on authoritarian regimes most similar to Russia’s suggest that if Putin exited office as a result of domestic dynamics—that is, because of a coup, a protest, or his natural death—Russia’s political trajectory would be unlikely to worsen in terms of stability and repression and might even improve. Research that one of us (Kendall-Taylor) has conducted with the political scientist Erica Frantz found that in the post–Cold War era, coups, wide-scale protests, and more violent forms of conflict are no more likely to erupt in the years after such leaders leave the scene than when they were in office. Repression, in fact, tends to subside after a change.
But although domestic dynamics might not become more combustible, authoritarianism in Russia will likely outlast Putin. In the post–Cold War era, authoritarianism persisted past the exit of longtime leaders in roughly 75 percent of cases, according to Kendall-Taylor and Frantz. Moreover, there is a strong chance that the elites who hold antagonistic views of the West will remain in power. According to the same research, a regime often remains intact after longtime leaders leave office—a prospect made more likely if Putin exits on account of natural death or an elite-led coup. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s security services, especially the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, have become only more empowered and entrenched. The more Putin must rely on repression to maintain control, the more power he must grant them. The security services—a group that historically has held especially hostile views of the United States and the West—are therefore primed to maintain influence beyond Putin. Unless there is significant turnover among the ruling elite in conjunction with Putin’s exit, Russia’s confrontational posture will endure.
Russia may face mounting challenges, but the Kremlin will try to adapt. In particular, the more vulnerable Putin feels given the degradation of Russia’s conventional forces in Ukraine, the more likely he is to rely on unconventional methods to accomplish his objectives. With its back against the wall, the Kremlin will also have less compunction about trying to destabilize its enemies through sometimes exotic and hard-to-track methods in the biological, chemical, cyberspace, or artificial intelligence realms.
For starters, the Kremlin will almost certainly intensify its disinformation campaigns. Russia has seen just how effective such campaigns can be: disinformation and propaganda have contributed to decisions by leaders in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to remain neutral or circumspect in the aftermath of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. By accusing Ukraine of carrying out atrocities that Russian soldiers have committed in the war, framing Western sanctions instead of Russia’s invasion as responsible for high food and energy prices, and convincing many that it is fighting a defensive war against an expanding NATO, Russia has diluted criticism of its military aggression.
Cyberattacks will also become an ever more important and disruptive tool, as recent incidents in Estonia and Lithuania suggest. In August, in response to Tallinn’s announcement that it would remove all Soviet monuments from public spaces, a Russian hacker group targeted more than 200 state and private Estonian institutions—the biggest wave of cyberattacks on Estonia in more than a decade. The same hacker group similarly targeted state and private institutions in Lithuania in June after the government placed restrictions on the transit of goods sanctioned by the European Union to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland that depends on Lithuanian railways and roads for supplies.
Most ominously, the more damage the Russian military incurs in Ukraine, the more likely it is to rely on the prospect of nuclear escalation to offset NATO’s conventional superiority in Europe. The Russian military appears genuinely more comfortable with the notion of limited nuclear use relative to its Western counterparts. To be sure, the use of nuclear weapons is a political decision, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that Russia’s political leadership might well consider limited nuclear use if faced with the kind of defeat that could threaten the regime or the state. A future crisis or conflict with NATO would leave Moscow with few conventional options before it decided to threaten or potentially use nuclear weapons, shortening the pathway to nuclear war.
The Russian military has been badly mauled in Ukraine.
The growing import of nonstrategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons to Russia’s military means that the country is less likely than ever to agree to negotiated limits on its nuclear arsenal. That is particularly problematic given that Russia has a more diversified nuclear arsenal than the United States does, with different types of nonstrategic weapons, and doctrinally appears to be more willing to use those weapons in a conflict. The current hostility in the U.S. Congress toward Russia and Moscow’s record of violating the treaties it signs also lowers the odds that the United States and Russia will agree to a replacement for the New start treaty once it expires in 2026. In the absence of an agreement, Russia’s ability to produce strategic nuclear weapons and deploy new systems would be unchecked, and the United States would lose important insights into Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Notably, China is also modernizing its nuclear arsenal. As a result, the United States will find itself dealing with two unconstrained nuclear powers, both focused on the United States as the primary threat.
Any sensible effort to counter Moscow must start in Kyiv. U.S. and European support for Ukraine has so far been remarkable. The United States alone has sent more than $45 billion in assistance. This support has helped Ukraine not just defend itself but launch a counteroffensive to retake territory occupied by Russian forces. With the momentum on Kyiv’s side, now is the time to step up the support and the provision of weapons Ukraine needs to, at a minimum, return its borders to where they stood before the invasion. Anything less would increase the prospects of another war down the line.
Even if Ukraine and its Western backers are wildly successful, however, Russia will remain a challenge for European security. Russia’s war, at its core, is an imperialist endeavor rooted in the still unfolding collapse of the Soviet Union. As some historians rightly point out, the dissolution of the Soviet Union is best thought of as a process that in many ways is still going on rather than as a discrete historical event; the war in Ukraine is just the latest in a series of conflicts that have accompanied this process. It is optimistic to assume that this war is the dying gasp of Russian imperialism or that Russia, even under a different leader, will quickly abandon revanchism to become a stakeholder in European security.
Moscow’s war is also leading to ripple effects that will create new risks in Western relations with Russia. For example, Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into NATO—a direct result of Russia’s attack on Ukraine—will increase security tensions with Russia in the Baltic and Arctic regions. NATO has been strengthened by their addition, but their membership also brings new borders for NATO to defend and contingency plans to develop. Moreover, a Russia that feels vulnerable about its conventional forces is more likely to overreact to Western actions. That is particularly true in the aftermath of Russia’s failures in Ukraine, which could prod the Kremlin to seek opportunities to demonstrate that Russia is still a power to be feared. Such dynamics will create new challenges for NATO to manage.
Russia is not in a position to start another war today and certainly not with NATO. But this does not mean Western policymakers can be complacent. Yes, it will take Russia the better part of a decade to recapitalize its conventional forces in the aftermath of its attack on Ukraine. But NATO has its own recapitalization woes. It will take years for member states to replenish the weapons and ammunition they sent to Ukraine in this war. That toll will mount if the war goes on longer, which it most likely will. It is also important not to plan to fight the previous war. NATO must consider how best to counter the Russian military that will eventually emerge from this war years from now and invest accordingly. Given Russia’s demonstrable failures in this war, it is unlikely that Moscow will seek to rebuild the same military, with its brittle force structure, weak training, and anemic logistical capacity.
Some have argued that Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine suggests that the United States can hand over the Russian challenge to Europe, allowing Washington to focus on Beijing. But if anything, this war has provided a stark reminder of why Europe’s defense is and will likely remain highly dependent on the United States. The ability to employ military power on a large scale means working out such issues as logistics, command and control, and communications for hundreds of thousands of troops. European countries would struggle on their own to scale operations to counter a future Russian campaign similar in size to the one Moscow launched in Ukraine. It is naive to think that any European country can provide the integration, enabling, and other critical support functions currently being performed by the United States. Defense planning based on Washington’s ability to offload the Russian challenge onto Europe in the next decade amounts to wishful thinking.
Likewise, the Russian war against Ukraine underscores the way in which the outcome of major wars ultimately comes down to attrition and the ability to replace lost personnel, materiel, and ammunition. NATO has deficits across the board in these categories. A European army would have been forced off the field long ago if it had taken even a fraction of the casualties suffered by the Russian or the Ukrainian armed forces. NATO has meager stocks of advanced weapons, militaries often composed of difficult-to-replace and expensive platforms, and a defense industrial capacity that would struggle to scale up production. Six months of support for Ukraine has exposed major gaps in the West’s ability to produce ammunition and key replacement parts. Getting Europe to do more for its own defense is a noble goal—but it will take years, perhaps even decades, to get there.
Russia under Putin will never be a stakeholder in European security. The Kremlin has shown that it is far more interested in imperialist revanchism than in strategic stability. In the near term, then, Washington and its allies must keep working to reduce the risks of escalation—especially of a nuclear exchange—and to diminish Russia’s ability to wage war. Although Washington has rightly suspended its arms control and strategic stability dialogue with Russia, it will need to maintain strategic communication with Moscow to avoid the chance of a nuclear confrontation. The United States and NATO, however, must plan for Russia’s growing reliance on unconventional tactics, including the possibility that Russia will increasingly rely on nuclear threats and may be willing to follow through with limited nuclear use.
Meanwhile, Washington must also work to constrict and constrain Russia—to prevent it from waging aggression beyond its borders. Degrading Russian power requires Washington to build on the policies it set in motion following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In particular, the United States must continue to help Europe transition away from Russian oil and gas and rebuild the arms it has given to Ukraine. Critically, Washington and its allies must invest in the enforcement of the sanctions, export controls, and anticorruption measures against Russia that have been put in place. Already there is evidence that Russia is working to circumvent them; the West must prevent it. Constraining Moscow will also require Washington and its European allies to sustain their engagement with India and other fence-sitting countries in Africa and the Middle East that continue to provide a lifeline to Russia. This will mean paying greater attention to the global South, where Russia enjoys greater influence and is able to contest the narrative.
In the long term, however, the United States and Europe share an interest in stabilizing the relationship with Russia. That will not be possible as long as Putin is in power. But one way or another, there will inevitably be a post-Putin Russia, and a change in leadership—especially in Russia’s highly personalized political system—will provide a chance to reestablish guardrails on the relationship. Even though any future Russian leader is likely to remain intent on restoring Russia’s global influence, especially on its periphery, it is clear that Ukraine has been a particular obsession for Putin. A resounding Russian defeat in Ukraine may teach future Russian elites a valuable lesson about the limits of military power. Russia’s growing subservience to Beijing could also raise the odds that a future leader will want options and pursue a foreign policy less antagonistic toward the West. Strategic cultures can change over time, including in response to dramatic defeats.
Washington and its allies must therefore confront Moscow while sticking to their values. This means being thoughtful in discussions of collective responsibility and in meting out forms of collective punishment. The U.S. government should actively assist the Russian exile community, including journalists, activists, and other Russians who support a freer and more democratic Russia, by providing U.S.-based professional fellowships for persecuted human rights defenders and journalists, for example, and addressing shortcomings in the implementation of anticorruption and sanctions policies that cause collateral damage to oppressed civil society actors.
As the United States and its allies cope with the current Putin regime and think about what might eventually follow it, they would do well to remember the old adage that Russia is never as strong as it looks or as weak as it looks. The country often goes through cycles of resurgence, stagnation, and decline. Even with its capacity and global standing diminished by its war in Ukraine, Russia will continue to be driven by its resentments, a quest for a geopolitical space outside its borders, and a desire for status. Washington cannot afford to write Russia off in an effort to ease its own mind, nor should it imagine that Europe can manage the problem on its own. The threat may evolve, but it will persist.
Annexation and Mobilization Make Nuclear War More Likely