Later this week, Russia will hold its presidential election, but no one is holding their breath about the outcome. Russia’s war in Ukraine has accelerated the process of ruthless consolidation of power in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s regime, with a mixture of fear and confidence, is becoming more brazenly aggressive against any opposition ahead of the election, which will be held from March 15 to 17.

Ukrainian soldiers with the 31st Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a 122-millimeter howitzer D-30 at a Russian target in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Feb. 20, 2024. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Ukrainian soldiers with the 31st Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a 122-millimeter howitzer D-30 at a Russian target in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Feb. 20, 2024. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

The war’s impact on Russia itself has been felt across the spectrum of Russian life. The war has affected the Russian military and economy, leading to fundamental changes in both. 

Perhaps less obvious, but no less significant, the war has also had an impact across Russian society. While most Russians believe their lives go on as before the war with the conflict having little impact on their daily existence, the truth is more nuanced.

The War’s Impact on the Military

The war’s toll on Russia’s military has been significant. By the end of 2023, estimates for Russian personnel killed ranged between 66,000 and 120,000. If you add in the number of wounded, that total reaches an astounding 315,000. In addition, Russia has taken tremendous equipment losses, including the severe degradation of its Black Sea fleet with 20 vessels sunk. In total, Russia has lost around 8,800 armored vehicles since it invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. But, as striking as those numbers are, experts estimate Russia has enough resources to continue the war at the same intensity for the next two to three years, if not longer. 

By the end of 2023, estimates for Russian personnel killed ranged between 66,000 and 120,000.

Russia has learned some harsh lessons from its failed initial onslaught and its forces’ subsequent collapse in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks. The Russian command withstood the summer 2023 Ukrainian offensive largely because of its defensive preparations. The Russians built a series of formidable defensive lines across southern Ukraine, featuring deep minefields and extensive prepared trenches augmented with unmanned aerial vehicles. Turning to the offensive in the fall of 2023, Russia has developed infantry tactics that are allowing it to slowly gain territory, especially in the Donbas.

Despite these developments, military experts at the United Kingdom’s Royal United Services Institute have assessed that, while Russia is likely capable of continuing offensive action through the rest of 2024, it will begin to face significant limitations in the production of weapons and munitions in 2025-2026. Even with the import of ammunition from North Korea and other places, they assess Russia will still have a deficit in 2025. Thus, they argue, Russia would struggle to achieve its offensive aims and make further gains in 2025 and beyond if “Ukraine’s partners continue to provide sufficient ammunition and training support to the AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] to enable the blunting of Russian attacks in 2024.”

The War’s Impact on the Economy

Russia’s economy has also surprised many analysts by its strong performance thus far in the war. Putin spoke about this at his 2024 address to the federal assembly: “Last year, Russia’s economy grew faster than the world economy, and we outperformed not only the leading EU countries, but all G7 economies as well.” Russia’s GDP in 2023 grew at a rate of about 3.0% to 3.5%, higher than initially predicted by international experts. This growth, however, results from some trends that threaten the long-term health of the Russian economy. Most notably, it comes on the back of high military spending for the war in Ukraine. In fact, some argue that Russia has shifted its entire economy to war production. 

The economic shifts engendered by Western sanctions and required to sustain Russia’s war effort portend significantly negative economic developments beginning perhaps as early as 2024. Some, including Russian Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina, warn that Russia’s economy risks overheating.  Others believe Russia will not be able to sustain this growth and will begin to slow. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts a “low-growth trajectory” from 2024 on, while Rand analysts argue that “the country could face a regression comparable with the era of stagnation of the late 1970s and 1980s.”  

The underlying reasons for these assessments should worry the Kremlin. The shift to defense production has been marked by an increase in the government’s role in the economy. This, combined with the mass emigration of younger Russians working in fields like IT (some estimate 10% of the IT workforce, or 100,000 people have departed Russia), is stifling innovation and economic modernization. Coupled with the lack of access to modern high-tech imports, the Russian economy may be de-modernizing, or becoming more backward — a development that threatens any prospects for long-term growth. While none of this means an immediate economic disaster for Russia, the country is spending its future on the war against Ukraine.

The long-term outlook for Russia’s economy is not the only economic problem resulting from Russia’s war. Putin’s focus on military spending is taking a noticeable and significant toll on civilian life, especially infrastructure. This winter, heating infrastructure broke down across the country, with even pro-Kremlin newspapers reporting that over 70% of the nation’s municipal infrastructure was decayed. Repairing these networks, as Putin pledged to do in his speech, will require the injection of more government spending into an already overheated economy.

Popular Response and Repression

The negative economic impact from the war may also beginning to be felt by ordinary Russians. Russian pollster Russian Field asked 1,662 people in the beginning of February whether their family’s standard of living had increased or decreased in the past two years, and 35% said it had decreased. Russian war fatigue may be setting in writ large. In that same poll, more than half of the respondents indicated they had negative emotions when they heard news about the “special military operation.” In fall 2023, three Russia polling agencies reported drops in support for the war — the first time that had happened since Putin announced a partial mobilization a year before.

The anti-war sentiment is not just appearing in formal polls. In the election this month, Putin is seeking a fifth term as president. As usual, the Kremlin is tightly controlling who will compete against Putin. They allowed one candidate to express an anti-war position (the defeat of whom would show the people’s support for the war). However, when the candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, garnered surprisingly large support as people stood in long lines throughout Russia to sign petitions to support him, the Central Election Commission subsequently refused to register him. Similar sentiment was evident at the funeral for opposition leader Alexei Navalny when thousands chanted “no to war!”

Anti-war sentiment is bubbling beneath the surface. Retired FSB General Yevgenii Savostianov argues that while polls currently show the Russian people increasingly want peace, but only on Russian terms (that is, without returning any of the territory Russia has captured from Ukraine), this is just their initial bargaining position. He insists that the result of people standing in lines to support Nadezhdin is that now those people know they are not alone in their opposition to war. This should help them overcome the fear of the “arbitrary power of authorities” felt by almost half the people polled in January

The people are right to be afraid. The war has accelerated the Putin regime’s use of repression and consolidation of power in the Kremlin. There were 19,850 detentions of people for anti-war actions in Russia between February 2022 and the end of January 2024. This can include actions as simple as standing with a blank piece of paper. It has also included a brutal crackdown on political opposition. Reminiscent of the sentences handed down during the Stalin era, a Russian court in April 2023 sentenced opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison for his criticism of Russia’s war.

What It Means

The war appears to have removed many limits on Putin’s actions. This week’s presidential election will amplify that. While earlier in his presidency Putin maintained the veneer of “managed democracy” or Russian-style “sovereign democracy” by allowing staged and controlled “opposition,” the Kremlin is now tightening state control over almost all forms of expression. This is reflected in an apparent increase of the security forces’ influence in Russia’s ruling circles. Navalny’s death in prison on February 16 and Kara-Murza’s sentence are ominous. This could have serious implications not just for the regime’s domestic, but also its international behavior. The war in Ukraine is laying the foundation for a weaker Russia in a few years, but it may also be making the regime more dangerous.


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