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Russia Is No Great Power If It Can’t Beat Ukraine on the Battlefield

Ukraine
Su-57 stealth fighter. Image Credit: Wikicommons.

The Ukraine War is Accelerating Russia’s Decline toward Middle Power Status – Three weeks into the Ukraine war, the most remarkable strategic observation – even more than Ukrainian heroism – is Russia’s terrible battlefield performance. This has surprised, even shocked, most analysts. Everyone, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, expected greater Russian success by this point. Our working assumption was that Russia is a great power able to deploy decisive conventional force, at minimum, in its own neighborhood. Now there are rumors that Russia is asking for Chinese military assistance and recruiting Middle East mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.

This is pretty obviously not the performance one would expect from a great power. If Russia cannot sustain a mid-sized kinetic contingency on its own border for more than three weeks without help, then Russia is in serious trouble. It might even be correct to finally stop calling Russia a great power – its GDP has been too small for that appellation for while – and admit that it has fallen out of that ranking.

Losing in Ukraine

Moscow’s traditional claim to great power status is obvious: Russia has a large landmass and a reasonably large, educated population. It has a large defense industrial base left over from the Soviet period, and thousands of nuclear weapons from the old USSR too. For the last decade, the Kremlin has embarked on a much-touted military modernization. The new, post-Soviet military was to be leaner, faster, more precise, and more technological than the bloated Red Army of yore. It would not need to engage in indiscriminate fires as it did in Chechnya to win.

Smaller Russian campaigns hinted at this potent new force – defeating Georgia in 2008, snatching the Crimea in 2014, and helping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad over the last decade. But the Ukraine invasion is the first major operation of this new Russian military against a substantial opponent. Amazingly, it now seems possible, that Ukraine, if it can hold out a few more weeks, may actually win the war by permanently stalemating the Russian army as its economy collapses back home under sanctions.

The reasons are many – corruption in procurement, low morale among soldiers who were not informed they would be fighting a war, war planning with highly optimistic assumptions that Ukraine would quickly capitulate, and Putin’s cronyistic inner circle unwilling to push back on his delusions about the war. But critically, without a battlefield victory in Ukraine, Russia’s claim to great power status will increasingly hang solely on its possession of many nuclear weapons.

The Ukraine War is Accelerating Russian Decline

Russia is rich in human capital and natural resources. Unfortunately, those capacities have long been poorly developed by a series of corrupt, autocratic strongmen and elites. Putin fits into a long tradition of Russian misgovernment, extending back through cronyistic and ideological Soviet dysfunction to the abuses and nepotism of the czarist regime.

Putin was supposed to shake this off. He replaced the dithering, confused leadership of President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. He promised strength and rule of law. And for a few years in the early 2000s, this appeared to be the case. He stemmed Russia’s post-Soviet slide.

But in time he fell into the bad habits of strongmen everywhere. He refused to leave power. He cracked down on dissent, stripping away the value of openness and transparency for clean, functional government. He tolerated and encouraged cronyism and corruption to tie critical elites to himself. He broke the independent oligarchs and ‘new Russians’ of the 1990s and replaced them with state-dependent client-elites who needed access to Putin to maintain their riches. Even Soviet rulers faced collective leadership in the Politburo. Putin does not.

The result of political misgovernance has been a slow but steady economic slide. Russia’s economy is now smaller than South Korea’s, and it will contract this year because of the tough new sanctions. Its population growth is stagnant. Its corruption score is similar to third-world states. Its economy is resource export-dependent. It mostly sells natural resources, despite pretensions to global political importance.

Raw military power has long been Russia’s traditional compensation for these economic problems. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once called the USSR ‘Upper Volta with missiles’ to capture that compensation. Per Schmidt, the Soviet Union may have had a stagnant economy, but its sheer military capability guaranteed it a place at the top table of international politics. Putin has often talked this way, belligerently insisting that Russia is a great power that cannot be pushed around.

The irony is that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is revealing that even Russia’s military strength – its last claim to great power respect and status – is weak. Post-Ukraine, more countries than ever – especially China – will ask if Russia is just a medium power masquerading under Putin’s bravado. Putin’s response will likely be to lean into Russia’s nuclear arsenal even more to cling to relevance.

This questioning of Russia’s capabilities also means Putin will likely escalate a lot in Ukraine before negotiating. Putin has painted himself into a corner. He must win – to demonstrate to his own people, the West, and the Chinese that Russia is the great power he says it is.

The irony of course is that the war is undercutting that claim every day. We can see that Russia can not defeat a mid-size power on its border; that its economy will contract soon; that Putin is desperately calling for help after just a few weeks. The war, intended to show Russia is a great power, is actually knocking it into the ranks of the middle powers.

Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea and a 1945 Contributing Editor. Follow his work on his website or at Twitter.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Alex

    March 19, 2022 at 10:31 am

    No. If and when Russia defeats Ukraine, and this is clearly seen on the maps of hostilities that are updated every day, then the worst thing will become obvious: the United States could not win the Korean and Vietnamese wars, but were beaten by the Papuans with sticks and therefore the United States is not a great power

  2. ZivBnd770

    March 19, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    Alex, your comment made this American patriot smile.
    Putin started a sad assault on a neighbor and his troops are paying a huge price for his desire to restore some of the pride Russians felt in their role in the old USSR. Well, this isn’t helping them at all.
    Russia may bull their way to a Pyrrhic victory of sorts, but there is no way that the 7,000 Russian men that have died so far will be forgotten by their families and neighbors. It will be a huge, putrid albatross around Putin’s neck for as long as he hangs on. Whereas the heroism and pluck of the Ukrainians have done exactly what Putin feared most. They have turned a mild mannered neighbor best known for its kleptocratic government into a fierce people united behind a government that found its raison d’être in resistance to Russia. And now the Ukrainian people and their government are united in their hatred of Putin and the Russian army. This is not how Russia wins. This is how the Russian people lose and the Oligarchs walk away having lost nothing.

  3. Alex

    March 19, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    ZivBnd770: I don’t care about American patriotism. I have seen him many times. It’s a shame. Most of all, I felt sorry for the dogs that were abandoned in Afghanistan when they ran away. That’s not what it’s about.

    The point is that Russia in any case will fulfill the assigned tasks, namely the demalitarization and denazification of Ukraine. Your data about 7000 is ridiculous. Better speak Ukrainian data – 15000, it will be even funnier. And I look at the map of hostilities and see the truth.

    Russia attacked? Donbass has been asking you all in the west for 8 years for help. Ukrainians were killed there in the same way as the Bandera Nazis did in the Volyn massacre. You laughed or closed your eyes, showing the grin of Nazism. Russia had to stop the genocide of people, which was staged by the Bandera Nazis. And your job is to sit and bark small under the bench, not educated “mother’s analysts.”

  4. Sam McGowan

    March 19, 2022 at 6:09 pm

    The author makes a lot of assumptions, and seems to be accepting Ukrainian propaganda as fact. The reality is that no one except the Russians themselves know how many men they have lost. The numbers are Ukrainian claims and US DOD assumptions. Nor does the author (or anyone else) know what Russian intentions really are. It may be that Putin has instructed his generals to minimize Ukranian casualties rather than just going in and blowing everything up. There is another factor – Ukraine was formerly part of the Soviet Union and provided a great deal of manpower to the Red military. Ukranians were in North Vietnam advising Ho Chi Minh’s military for example. Ukraine had a large stockpile of former Russian military equipment so the two forces are fighting against an enemy that is similarly armed. Personally – and I have a great deal of military experience and have written extensively on military subjects – I think it is too soon to be making projections. Wars usually last years, not weeks.

  5. yankee2

    March 19, 2022 at 7:38 pm

    Russia will never be “middle power status” as long as it has nuclear weapons!

  6. Sanel

    March 20, 2022 at 8:18 am

    After being chased out in such emphatic fashion out of Kabul I guess USA is comfortably at level of waterboy then. Yeah??

  7. Eric-ji

    March 20, 2022 at 9:25 am

    Some are con fusing capability with will. The USA has the capability, but since WWII has lacked the will to do what’s necessary to win. It’s a representative democracy & the people tire of conflicts or don’t stomach the level of destruction needed to “win”.

    Totalitarians like Putin have the will to ‘destroy to win’, but Putin has shown to be lacking in the capability area.

  8. Alex

    March 20, 2022 at 11:46 am

    There are not enough opportunities to cover all cities with napalm, as the United States does – this is a show of mercy, and not thoughtless force, after which hundreds of thousands of people died around the globe. Anyone who is considered a totalitarian in the West enjoys the support of 80% of the population. And the people of Russia do not care about the opinions of others.

  9. Jacksonian Libertarian

    March 20, 2022 at 6:01 pm

    The assumption that Russian forces can just sit in place is wrong. The Logistical demands of an army in the field can’t be denied. Ukraine will be cutting Russian supply lines and lines of communication/retreat. Cut off and demoralized Russian formations will surrender quickly, rather than be frozen, starved, and killed.

    The Orcs know that they are Orcs, and are ashamed.

  10. monkfelonious

    March 20, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    Methinks Mr. Kelly has been reading a little Kamil Galeev…

  11. Alex

    March 20, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    And I heard about the destruction of 100,000 Russian soldiers and Ukrainian tanks near Moscow. Then I looked at the map of hostilities and the real losses of the parties. Although Goebbels was a liar and a propagandist, he was not a clown like the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and an idiot like those who believe in Ukrainian propaganda. You can poke your nose at maps and satellite images, official data, but their brain does not accept the truth, but believes in what it is capable of, due to its limited capabilities 🙂

  12. Omega 13

    March 21, 2022 at 11:48 am

    Russia has a smaller economy than several American states. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    “Upper Volta with missiles.” Precisely!

  13. Warspite

    March 21, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    Does that mean US performance in Afghanistan suggests paper tiger status? The present situations in Iraq & Libya which are unitary, sovereign nations only on old maps are also relevant. A Russian failure should not be used to distract from problems w/the U.S. military and diplomatic efforts. But it is being used to distract, isn’t it?

  14. monkfelonious

    March 21, 2022 at 7:00 pm

    Man, the russian yap-flappers are out on every site these days that has anything with the place name Ukraine in it! The interesting thing to me is the lower echelon (Like Alexi here) ALL sound like the same person.

  15. Alex

    March 21, 2022 at 8:20 pm

    Instead of writing on the topic, Bandera Nazis and their supporters prefer to get personal. It looks so much like them. Powerless anger and imminent defeat reminds them of their ancestors in the 40-50s of the last century. And they have only one way…

  16. Лилия

    March 22, 2022 at 12:23 am

    The disrespect for the enemy is surprising) The Russian army is an invincible military machine and demoniac propaganda shouting “Russians are losing” only amuses them and causes bewilderment. Humble yourself – America is not interesting to Putin and Russia, it’s just a country with the behavior of a mentally ill teenager. The Russians will do what they see fit and will not even notice your cries.

  17. RogerBacon

    March 22, 2022 at 4:10 pm

    Alex, your comments aren’t going to age well. I hope you are still on these forums around mid-May when the Russian vehicles are all stuck in the mud, the Russian troops are out of supplies, and the Ukrainians begin their counter-attack.
    Have you looked at the tires on those Russian trucks?
    (Danger. Western propaganda ahead. Click at your own risk) 🙂
    https://www.westernjournal.com/defense-expert-spots-massive-issue-russia-trucks-indicates-entire-wars-change/

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