How do we know and when will we know if a change will be expected in Russia towards a policy other than Putin’s current one? In retrospect, there are, arguably, essential lessons to be learned from the Cold War that should be considered when assessing the way ahead for Russia. These lessons motivate caution when interpreting current and future Russian policy indicators. Still, Putin would be wise to anticipate major problems ahead for himself and his regime.

Let’s face it: we know little more than we did towards the end of the Cold War what Russians think. Many citizens of the Warsaw Pact states coming out of the Cold War found their place in the new Europe without significant difficulties. On the elite level, it was normal to express some degree of support to Western ideals concerning democracy, human rights, and the rule of law through organizations such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE, including the OSCE Politico-Military Code of Conduct from the mid-1990s. Some of these officials are still in office in Russia. Still, their current posture is typically challenging to reconcile with how they behaved in the 1990s. Former president Medvedev is a spectacular example of this sea change with his violent rhetoric, including on nuclear war. But this may change again. Who knows?

It is a simple fact that what people think and believe at this point is very difficult to know. In a repressive society, there are relatively few people who dare to take a stand and risk their positions.  In such societies, families often come first. For this reason, the courage demonstrated by thousands during the Russian electoral campaign and the burial of Navalny is worthy of great respect.

The validity of the polls undertaken by the Russian institute Levada and other analysts indicating robust support for Putin should be looked at critically. We simply don’t know how popular Putin is. Moreover, popularity can change quickly, as in open societies like the US.

Russian Capabilities – Military and Civilian

Repeated mistakes have also been made concerning the assessment of Russian capabilities –  current and future. Sometimes, these mistakes have been intentional: to underpin calls for higher defense budgets in the West, think tank analysts towards the end of the Cold War not seldom sought to forward the hypothesis that Russia would be able to continue the arms race unabated.

At the same time, it is essential to keep an open mind as regards the effects of Russian casualties on societal support for the war in Ukraine, difficulties to replace lost equipment, and the net effect of sanctions, etcetera.  All these factors normally would be expected to influence the possibilities for Russia to sustain the war effort.

In some parts of Russia, casualties, no doubt, hit many affected families hard and impacted demography negatively, although nowhere near the suffering known to the Russian population during the first half of the 20th century. But in Moscow, perhaps 1% of the casualties in comparison with the most distant regions are registered. There are likely Muscovites who simply do not know anyone who the war has seriously hurt.

Regarding equipment, an authoritarian regime can order production to be intensified with much less delay than in a Western society with its complicated rules of production and procurement, even more so if its leadership can adopt alert procedures without declaring war. For Western societies to do the same normally requires a wartime situation.

And Russian resilience to sanctions has already been demonstrated. Once alternative suppliers and buyers have been identified, Russian economists and planners have seemingly skillfully found ways to neutralize the effects of sanctions to a surprising extent.

There is also significant data collected by analysts in the West that indicate a strong capability on the Russian side to learn from initial mistakes after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Clouds On the Russian Horizon

Still, from Putin’s perspective, significant clouds are on the horizon. Not only have Europeans come together when enlarging NATO, supporting Ukraine, and increasing their defense budgets as a response to the Russian aggression. During the pandemic, Europe created new ways to respond to seemingly overwhelming challenges.

According to the dictionary, resilience means to recover your shape after external pressure. What is often forgotten here is that external pressure can bring new energy to a political system.

The first two years of the war effort have been managed and led by the president of Ukraine with courage and enormous energy. Ukraine had eight years to prepare for this war since 2014. And the country is now one of Europe’s most important military powers.

Even more fundamental is that Putin cannot be sure what will happen in the US. This fact is visible when studying Russian frequent signaling about the possibility of Russia using sub-strategic nuclear weapons in the war.

This option is linked to the need to deter other nuclear powers, primarily the US but also, to a certain extent, France, and the UK, from openly intervening with their troops on the ground in Ukraine. Western military personnel, including those in civilian clothes, are of course already present in Ukraine. That Western military aid has enabled direct attacks on Russian territory is another red line that have been trespassed by the West and, so far, accepted by Russia.

But Russia desperately needs to avoid a situation where the wrath of the American president and the American Congress explodes in the way that happened not only after Pearl Harbor but also after 9/11. This worry is – also – associated with the strong possibility that Donald J Trump will be elected president of the US in November 2024. Trump may believe that he can make a deal over the heads of Ukrainians and Europeans with Putin. But if he finds himself betrayed when that deal is not coming through or not being respected by Putin, his reaction may be very unpredictable. In such a situation, he may also have amassed powers outside the standard authority of a US President.

As now is widely discussed, it is therefore by no means obvious that Russia will focus its capabilities to wage hybrid war in support of Trump’s candidacy. The favorite outcome of the American elections, more likely, is more of the same – underpinning systemic American difficulties to make decisive decisions on security, meaning something entirely different than the Founding Fathers Montesquieu-inspired ideas of checks and balances. But he cannot be sure if this strategy will succeed or what the net outcome of the elections to the European Parliament in early June will be in terms of European governance.

It is not well known in the West, but it is also an essential factor to consider that Russia harbors significant threat perceptions as regards China. Important parts of the Russian nuclear capabilities are directed towards meeting threats from China. Should Russia seriously or perhaps even in an existential way threaten China’s future avenue towards becoming the world’s leading economic superpower with extensive trade relations and economic dependencies across the globe, including through the Arctic passage, no one knows how China would react. Nuclear war – even on a sub-strategic level – has already been ruled out as inadmissible by the Chinese leadership.

Actions and Reactions not only tend to cancel each other out but can also lead to unforeseen escalation in surprising directions

Security policy analysis is repeatedly proven faulty if it is performed in stove pipes. That is one problem that constantly is undermining the possibilities to create and implement comprehensive and integrated strategies. But equally important is the ability to study honestly the net results of actions and reactions both in the military and nonmilitary domains of policies. No serious military exercise can be conducted without an opposing force (OPFOR).

Looking at the Middle East, it was, for instance, striking to note already in the early 1970s that there was almost a perfect correlation between military assistance provided by the Soviet Union to Egypt and Syria and what was sent to Israel from the US if one took into account the quality of the equipment.

Is There A Breaking Point For Russia?

Every government faces the possibility of a breaking point when continuing the current policy is no longer possible. The Soviet Union came to such a breaking point in the second half of the 1980s through a combination of different factors that could not be managed by the Soviet bureaucracy after a series of critically ill leaders who only too late were replaced by young Gorbachev.

Many analysts describe 2024 as a year of muddling through, including on the battlefield waiting for 2025. We face great difficulty forecasting developments during that year on many levels and in many dimensions.

There is good reason to believe that the Russian leadership is as worried about the situation as the West. Otherwise, Russia would, arguably, not, with increasing frequency, threaten with the use of nuclear weapons in the war. Should polls indicate with even more clarity that Trump will be the next president of the US, this would by no means suggest that Putin’s problems would be solved. Instead, they may worsen, if also Europe bounces back under pressure and becomes more effective in supporting Ukraine.

The author is former ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences
This text is previously published by Consilio International