Russian President Putin still firmly believes in a complete victory in Ukraine. That is what experts from the American think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) write in a latest update on the war.
According to them, neither the West nor Ukraine have yet succeeded in convincing Putin that a compromise is needed to end the war. Putin is prepared for a long, drawn-out war to eventually force Ukraine to surrender or to make the West war-weary, leaving Kyiv alone, the ISW writes.
Based on the recent rhetoric and actions of the Russian president, the experts believe that only several successful counter-offensives by Ukraine can force Putin to the negotiating table. But the question is whether Putin will accept the reality on the battlefield.
Russia is trying to recruit Afghan commandos to fight in Ukraine, Sky News reports. According to several Afghan military sources, these special forces could have a major impact on the outcome of the battle, should they decide to join the fight. They are trained by the British and US military.
There is a chance that about 10,000 of these men will join Russia, according to an anonymous Afghan source. “They have no country, no jobs, no future. They have nothing to lose,” the source told Sky News. The soldiers are said to have been approached by Russia via WhatsApp and the encrypted messaging service Signal.
After the last US troops left Afghanistan in August last year, the Afghan commandos were left behind. Only some of them were evacuated when the Taliban took power. The men who remained in Afghanistan had to go into hiding to avoid prison or execution.
Russian gas exports have already fallen sharply, but the oil industry has yet to be affected. The Russian economy is contracting this year and the next, but less sharply than previously estimated. On balance, income from oil and gas exports has increased considerably, which is filling the state treasury. The European oil boycott will put pressure on revenues, while other sanctions will also hurt more.
Is Europe sinking as Russia climbs out of the trough? A Russian journalist recently asked this question during a press conference of the International Monetary Fund. Wishful thinking, the IMF economists clearly hinted in their response. They expect a contraction of -3.4% for this year, -2.3% for next year, while the eurozone is expected to grow slightly in 2023. However, last April, a contraction of more than 8% was expected for 2022.
Where does this relative windfall come from? Earlier analysis of the Russian economy still assumed a financial crisis. This scenario did not materialize because capital movements were restricted. Russian monetary authorities also prevented a bank run by raising interest rates. Friend and foe praise the attitude of the Bank of Russia, which operates independently and paints a fairly realistic picture of the economy. In a recent publication, the central bank stated that the economic recovery stalled in September, while inflation is rising again — partly due to ‘the exodus of suppliers and retail chains from unfriendly countries’.
Higher returns from energy exports keep Russia going. It is true that Moscow has largely turned off the gas tap to Europe of its own accord (exports are 80% lower than a year ago), but the sale of gas before the war ‘only’ accounted for a quarter of oil revenues. Oil is therefore much more important to the Russian economy. The price per barrel is higher this year than in 2021 (the recently announced production cut by the oil cartel Opec sets a new floor), while the export volume has remained stable. The state is likely to receive RR 11,700 billion (€194 billion) from oil and gas sales this year, an analyst estimates, compared to RR 9,100 billion last year (€151 billion).
The big blow
Western sanctions are potentially disastrous for Russian industry, which relies heavily on imports of machinery and technology. So far, Moscow has succeeded in limiting the effects with a bit of trickery and wizardry. As soon as the stocks run out, it is expected that major problems will arise. In the meantime, the combination of robust energy exports, falling imports and strict monetary policy is resulting in a strong ruble. This also dampens inflation, as imported consumer goods are relatively cheap as a result.
Normally, the strength of the currency says something about the strength of the underlying economy. But in the case of Russia, this is misleading. Analysts still expect the war to cost the country 10% to 15% of GDP, although this bill is spread over several years. The biggest blow will be the European boycott of Russian oil, which will take effect in December.
This impending intervention has already led to shifts in trade flows: less to Europe, more to Asia. But can the entire decline of exports to Europe (accounting for about half of Russia’s oil exports before the war) be absorbed by, for example, China? It would then have to import more than twice as much Russian oil. Given the limited supply of tankers, this is only possible if new pipelines are built — and that costs time and money. Bofit, the think tank of the Finnish central bank, foresees an ‘exceptionally large drop’ in Russian exports before 2023. Finnish economists expect a 4% contraction for the Russian economy this year and next, making them more pessimistic than the IMF.
Oil and gas sales account for 40% of Russian government revenue. Lower exports will push up the budget deficit. In view of the low, largely domestically financed government debt, this is not an acute problem.
The decline of the Russian economy is happening in slow motion. This not only concerns the effects of the sanctions, but also of the wave of emigration as a result of the mobilization. Demographers expect a declining birth rate, accelerating the population decline that started in 2018. Bloomberg economists now estimate Russia’s potential economic growth at 0.5% annually — up from 2.5% before the war.
While Russia is gaining ground in eastern Ukraine, there was also positive military news last week. With the weapons received by the West, Ukraine has launched a number of successful attacks against the Russian army and is preparing a counter-offensive against southern cities like Kherson. Ukraine also launched its first attack on a Russian naval base in Crimea.
In addition, a new study by scientists at Yale showed that the sanctions are effective and have now paralyzed the Russian economy.
With the beginning of the transit of food from the Black Sea, the image may arise that Russia would be ready for an agreement. However, this is implausible. The country is already preparing for a long-term conflict and unfortunately Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West could improve significantly in the near future.
First, we must realize that Russia is expanding the conflict to more and more stages. In space, for example: Russia has indicated that it would stop collaborating on the International Space Station, which may endanger the entire project. This also applies to the maritime level: Putin this week approved a new maritime doctrine against American dominance of the world’s seas.
Not to mention the diplomatic scene, where Russia is very active and is trying to influence its image worldwide. In the former Soviet sphere, Putin has visited Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and has held summits with leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Important consultations have been held with regional powers Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In Uzbekistan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an Asian bloc led by China and Russia.
The same Lavrov also visited Africa, where he disseminated the Russian perspective on the war in Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Congo. This ties in with anti-Western sentiment and with the economic concerns of many African leaders, as already demonstrated by Macky Sall, president of Senegal and currently chairman of the African Union.
In Africa, Russia has other instruments. In recent years, the Russian private army, the Wagner Group, has gained influence in countries such as Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and more recently Burkina Faso. This could cause unrest on Europe’s borders.
Even more important than Russian diplomacy is that Western unity threatens to crumble. First, take the US. After the summer, the mid-term elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate will take place there and it is very likely that Biden’s position in Washington will weaken. Ukraine is currently not a major topic in the US. Foreign news in the US is about China and Saudi Arabia. However, the main topic on the news is inflation. Rising prices combined with a recession do not bode well for the incumbent government and its ability to conduct coherent foreign policy.
Consider Europe. Here we see a similar dynamic. The pain of higher prices is becoming more and more apparent and this is causing political tensions. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was the first prominent victim of this when he resigned after clashing with the Five Star Movement over aid packages. After new elections, a right-wing coalition that favors a more positive relationship with Russia could come to power. Everywhere, including in rich countries such as the Netherlands, economic problems will put a lot of pressure on politicians in the coming months.
Tensions will also increase between European countries. The new Italian government will take office at a time of rising interest rates, which will bring renewed concerns about the debt burden of southern European countries. And also think of Eastern Europe. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, stated last week that the European sanctions policy is failing and that the EU should not align itself with Ukraine, but between Russia and Ukraine. Impending energy shortages will sharpen the dividing line between countries that are more and less dependent on Russian gas.
So it is quite possible that Western unity and support for Ukraine will come under great pressure in the coming months, let alone possible disruptions such as a new corona wave.
This does not mean that Russia is going to win the war or that the West should push for an agreement with Russia now. This is not feasible. But it does mean that we have to think now about what we will do with a weaker position. And that it is time to look more outwardly and launch our own EU diplomatic offensive.
UN reporting of Russian military crimes against innocent civilians in Ukraine calls Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “fake news” in a rare interview with British broadcaster BBC. But Russia is not completely spotless, he admits.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not an invasion but a special military operation, NATO is to blame and Russia is “denazifying” Ukraine: In an exclusive interview with British broadcaster BBC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quotes yet again the same catchphrases. The conversation took place on the sidelines of the annual Economic Forum of the Roscongress Foundation in St. Petersburg, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
But harrowing stories about how Ukrainian civilians are being treated by Russian soldiers abound. “Is that fighting against Nazism?” asks the BBC journalist when he presents one of those situations to the Russian minister. Lavrov admits this is regrettable, but also that the UN is being used to amplify fake news from the West.
“So again: is Russia spotlessly white?” the interviewer throws to him. “No, Russia is not spotlessly white”, Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed to show who we are.”
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