oDR: Opinion

How Putin could yet boost domestic support for the Ukraine war

OPINION: Putin has many problems – not least that support for the war is flagging. But he may have a trump card

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 December 2022, 3.41pm
Putin addresses the nation two days after the Ukraine invasion

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

As Western arms industries enjoy the financial bonanza of the war in Ukraine, daily reports emerge of more military aid for Ukraine and also of NATO states stocking up on weapons for future wars.

Just a week ago, the Pentagon announced a further $275m in aid for Kyiv, bringing the total this year to nearly $20bn. As well as large amounts of ammunition, this most recent tranche includes new systems to detect and counter drones. It is actually smaller than recent arms packages, apparently because of an anticipated slow-down in the war over the winter months.

Even for the world’s largest military power, the rate of use of US munitions in Ukraine – much of them from existing Pentagon stocks – is straining the rate of production, so new contracts are being signed. One example is the production of standard 155mm artillery shells, which will rise from the current 15,000 a month to 20,000 by the spring and 40,000 by 2025.

Meanwhile the UK’s Ministry of Defence has just announced the purchase of several thousand Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) missiles. These will be produced from 2024 to 2026, partly to replenish anti-tank missiles already provided to Ukraine from existing stocks.

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Other NATO countries are also increasing their support, with Slovakia on the point of providing MiG-29 warplanes similar to those already in use in the Ukraine air force. Though these date from the Cold War era, they were upgraded between 2004 and 2006 with NATO-compatible communications and navigation equipment.

In response to repeated requests for advanced missile defences against Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy systems, Biden is reportedly about to announce the provision of the Patriot missile system. While hardly a game-changer, it will be one more problem for Putin as Russia tries to develop its energy war.

There are other problems ahead for Russia, with its armed forces reported to be running down their stocks of serviceable ammunition and missiles at such an alarming rate that they will be largely depleted by the end of the winter. Efforts will no doubt be made to get stocks from North Korea and Iran, but that has proved difficult recently, with the exception of one class of light drone from Tehran. The remaining option is to rely on old stocks from the Cold War era, but whether the shells or missiles are useable is uncertain and they may even be dangerous for Russian troops to fire.

In short, Western states are busily gearing up for plentiful supplies of munitions and equipment to be available to Kyiv for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the problem for Russia is increasingly its actual conduct of the war. Remember that originally, back in the spring, it was to be no more than a ‘special military operation’ set to last just a few weeks.

But this has all changed. The war has dragged on and Putin is currently faced with several areas of concern.

From the very early days of the war, Putin has claimed that NATO is bent on the destruction of Russia as a serious player on the world scene

First, on the battlefield, Ukraine has consolidated its control of areas such as Kherson and has resisted Russian attempts to advance around the town of Bakhmut further north. It appears ready to further damage Russian positions north-east of Kherson, making full use of the HIMARS rockets and other systems provided by Washington. Even if Russia is planning a new year offensive, it is unlikely to succeed, with yet more deaths and destruction being the consequence.

Secondly, Russia’s energy war against Ukraine, with its bombing of power plants, is certainly causing many problems. But its supply of missiles is diminishing, and the difficulties it has caused have so far been containable by Kyiv.

The parallel Russian strategy of limiting energy supplies to NATO allies in Europe is also proving problematic. World oil and gas supplies are cheaper than a few months ago, and Qatar has moved to heavily increase the export of its vast natural gas reserves to Western Europe and China. It plans further increases and is currently constructing four new liquified natural gas production and export terminals.

Lastly, on the Russian home front, the partial mobilisation has made the war less popular and anti-war feeling will likely grow as the progressive impact of sanctions increases through the winter months.

Does this mean Putin is now losing his war and may look to negotiations during the winter months? That is possible, but there is one remaining factor that may come to his aid.

From the very early days of the war, Putin has repeatedly claimed that NATO is bent on the destruction of Russia as a serious player on the world scene. This is far easier to argue now than it was back in March.

As NATO weapons equipment and intelligence assets continue to pour in, the Ukraine conflict has become a substantial proxy war. NATO may not be losing soldiers on the battlefield, and its cities may be spared missile attacks, but it – and especially the United States – is fully engaged in the war.

This may be the one element that still holds considerable traction for Putin within Russia, and he has a track record here. For more than two decades he has warned that the survival of the Russian state as a world power is under threat. Now he can argue that this is what is at stake in the Ukraine war. The fact that it was his decision to invade Ukraine that led to NATO’s involvement is neither here nor there.

For domestic purposes, it is all too easy to remind older Russians of that Western contempt for Russia as a failed state back in the early 1990s. Whatever else happens in the coming winter months, it is wise to expect this to be emphasised repeatedly.

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