Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting on an ancient weapon more powerful than any of the missiles now being supplied by the United States and its European allies to Ukraine: time.
Nearly five months since Putin ordered the Feb. 24 invasion that has devastated parts of Ukraine, Russia is hoping that Western resolve will be sapped by alarm over surging global energy and food prices that the war has helped to stoke
Russian officials and state television openly gloat about the fall of British and Italian prime ministers Boris Johnson and Mario Draghi, depicting their resignations as a result of the “self-harming” sanctions the West imposed on Russia.
Who in the West, they ask, will be the next leader to fall?
Putin, who turns 70 in October, told the West this month he was just getting started in Ukraine and dared the United States – which enjoys economic and conventional military superiority over Russia – to try to defeat Moscow. It would, he said, fail.
“Putin’s bet is that he can succeed in a grinding war of attrition,” CIA Director William Burns, a former US ambassador to Moscow, told the Aspen Security Forum this week.
The former KGB spy is betting he can “strangle the Ukrainian economy, and wear down the European publics and leaderships, and he can wear down the United States because in Putin’s view Americans always suffer from attention deficit disorder and will, you know, get distracted by something else,” Burns said.
Burns, who was sent by US President Joe Biden to Moscow last November to warn Putin of the consequences of invading Ukraine, said he thought the Russian leader’s bet would fail.
But the Kremlin shows no sign of backing down, saying Russia will achieve all of its aims in Ukraine.
Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine now went far beyond the Donbas region to include a swathe of territory in the south and “a number of other territories”.
The US National Security Council said on Tuesday it had intelligence that Russia was preparing to annex all of Donbas as well as land along Ukraine’s southern coastline including Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
This would formalise Russian control over more than 18% of Ukrainian territory in addition to around 4.5% that Moscow took in 2014 by annexing Crimea.
If the West supplies more longer-range weapons to Ukraine, such as high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), Lavrov said, Russia’s territorial appetite will grow further.
“The rhetorical message Lavrov seems to be sending to the West is: the longer the war lasts, the more we claim,” said Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics. “It could be pure bluff but I would not be surprised if Russia wanted to keep the southern territories.”