Confer­ence Report: Russia is Gearing up for a Long War. Are we Ready?

While Russia is preparing for a long war, the West remains hesitant and divided. At this year’s confer­ence Russia and the West, partic­i­pants urgently called for a new European policy versus Moscow. They pleaded for a double strategy to enable Ukraine to win the war and to support demo­c­ratic change in Russia.

LibMod’s annual confer­ence Russia and the West is the flagship event of our Expert Network Russia. Find out more about the network here.

Read this text in German.

As Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine is in its third year, the results of Germany’s “Zeit­en­wende” are mixed: Vladimir Putin’s military successes have been limited, while Ukraine – surpris­ingly for many – has asserted itself mili­tarily with Western help. However, the country is paying a high price for this. Given the brutality of the war and the conse­quences of a Ukrainian defeat for the European order, support from the West remains too little too late. Western govern­ments disagree about how far their support for Ukraine should go and there is a lack of clarity about how to deal strate­gi­cally with Russia and the shape of a post-war European order.

Against this dramatic backdrop, almost 100 experts discussed about future Western Russia policies at the Center of Liberal Modernity’s “Russia and the West” confer­ence, this year under the headline “What is at Stake”.

We inter­viewed confer­ence partic­i­pant and former deputy US ambas­sador to Germany Robin Quinville on the sidelines of the conference.

The Kremlin is creating condi­tions for a long war

The panel on Russia’s domestic situation agreed that Putin is both preparing for a long war and is using the war to consol­i­date his regime. The compo­si­tion of the newly-formed govern­ment after Putin’s “re-election” for another six-year-term in March 2024 shows that the regime is mobil­ising economic resources in order to fight a long war.

For this, the Kremlin can rely on suffi­cient popular support. Only a minority of Russians dissent and occa­sion­ally openly show this under great risk – for example by gathering to mourn Alexei Navalny or by public support for pres­i­den­tial candi­dates Boris Nadezhdin and Ekaterina Duntsova, who advocated a limited anti-war agenda before being barred from standing in the election.

A majority continues to support the regime and its war against Ukraine. However, this majority is highly atomized and intim­i­dated, prompting doubts about how active its support is. There certainly is no big enthu­siasm for joining the military: The defence ministry had to raise soldiers’ pay levels five times in the last two years.

And because the recruit­ment drive targets low-income and socially disad­van­taged groups in order to avoid general mobil­i­sa­tion, the war causes a redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth towards these groups: And as more people benefit from it econom­i­cally, the propor­tion of those who feel that the distri­b­u­tion of wealth in Russia is fair is rising for the first time since the 1990s, according to surveys.

The regime can also rely on wide­spread anti-Western sentiment. After the large-scale invasion of Ukraine was initially presented as a “special military operation” on the periphery, it is increas­ingly being portrayed as a new edition of the Great Patriotic War, in which Russia must assert itself against the West.

Such messages resound also with Russians otherwise critical of the govern­ment, because they offer simple expla­na­tions and moral relief even for those who feel that their country is waging an unjust war. In addition, many who prin­ci­pally disap­prove of the war believe that once it has started, Russia must avoid defeat.

Is Putin over­con­fi­dent or desperate?

However, partic­i­pants disagreed whether the replace­ment of Putin’s long-time confi­dante Sergei Shoigu by the economist Andrei Belousov as defence minister in the middle of the war was a sign of strength or desperation.

Some argued that by installing a defence minister without military expe­ri­ence, Putin demon­strated that he is confident to take important military decisions alone, while Belousov is expected to improve the effi­ciency of defence spending. “Putin thinks that he is winning. A war of attrition is won by economics,” one panelist said.

But others argued that Belousov’s appoint­ment and the simul­ta­neous arrests of high-ranking Defence Ministry officials on corrup­tion charges signals desper­a­tion. “These arrests and Shoigu’s removal are clear signs that Putin believes that things are very bad and that he is resorting to desperate coun­ter­mea­sures,” another panelist said.

However, everyone agreed that Russia, which already spends more than eight per cent of its GDP on defence and national security, has suffi­cient resources to continue the war in the short term. The Russian economy, boosted by increased military produc­tion, could also cope with the conse­quences of the sanctions in the short term thanks to high revenues from oil sales.

In the medium and long term, however, the problems will worsen. Glaring labour shortages and a lack of Western tech­nolo­gies are already making them­selves felt. The pivot towards China, intended i.a. to replace important gas revenues like from Germany and the EU, is not working as planned. Beijing is exploiting Moscow’s depen­dence on natural resource exports to force lower prices.

Rising military spending is also expected to force cuts in social spending. This in turn could exac­er­bate social tensions due to ethnic, regional, social or ecolog­ical injus­tices. And the elites them­selves could also be affected.

The sum of these internal factors, exac­er­bated by the sanctions, will increase tensions in the system in the long term. In the fore­see­able future, however, only a Russian defeat in Ukraine could pave the way for change.

Sanctions need resolve

The discus­sion about the West’s sanctions policy was markedly less contro­ver­sial. Prac­ti­cally everybody agreed that all measures against Russia’s war economy must be tightened or improved. The West can and must act here because it is signif­i­cantly stronger: the EU member states are forecast to have a joint GDP of 19 trillion US dollars in 2024, almost ten times as much as Russia’s two trillion.

But while the balance of resources favors the West, the balance of resolve favors Moscow. Thus, panelists urged to close loopholes for goods like machine tools and semi­con­duc­tors going to Russia via third countries and for prof­itable exports from Russia, first and foremost oil. While the discus­sion about the former led to calls for a blanket trade ban that would end the current exemp­tions for medical goods and food, hopes for the latter focus on an embargo for Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) and on bans for Russian oil tankers in EU ports.

Most speakers also urged to give the 200 billion dollars of Russian Central Bank assets frozen in Europe to Ukraine – and not just the interest income. Because, once the money is frozen, it may legally be taken, as the lawyer Patrick Heinemann explained in an article for our dossier on sanctions. Turning to those in the German govern­ment and the European Central Bank who reject this as “too risky”, one panelist asked why the delivery of weapons to Ukraine was less risky.

Our panelist, former Ukrainian govern­ment official Olena Tregub offered a short summary of the debate on sanctions.

Elements of a new European Russia policy

However, the West is currently finding it difficult to mobilize the necessary resources for a Ukrainian victory. Several partic­i­pants saw one reason for this in the fact that the West lacks a strategy for dealing with Russia. During the discus­sion, they warned that any arrange­ment with the current regime neces­sarily means giving conces­sions to the Kremlin at the expense of Ukraine.

Instead, the West should be working towards victory for Ukraine and provide the country with every­thing it needs to achieve this. At the same time, we should perma­nently minimise the Kremlin’s capacity for aggres­sion through a combi­na­tion of military deter­rence and contain­ment. The confer­ence agreed that the Putin regime is the main obstacle to sustain­able peace in Europe and for demo­c­ratic reforms in Russia.

Panelists pointed out that Putin openly sees the war against Ukraine as part of a long conflict to weaken the West and undermine the rules-based liberal order, which in his eyes is Western supremacy. And Russia is not acting alone, but in an alliance with Iran and China. For this reason, a Kremlin victory would have cata­strophic conse­quences for the future inter­na­tional order. That is why the West, if it wants to succeed, needs both a strategy for victory and recon­struc­tion in Ukraine and a long-term strategy to transform Russia and not just to weaken the Kremlin. Even if it does not seem likely at present, every oppor­tu­nity should be used to achieve changes in Russia.

Possible elements of such a strategy:

  • Force the Kremlin into inter­na­tional isolation.
  • Signif­i­cantly increase the sanctions’ economic pressure.
  • Hold Moscow account­able for its war crimes in Ukraine – inter alia by resuming the initia­tive for a special tribunal on the crime of aggression.
  • Work on stabi­lizing the countries in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.
  • Promote the prospects for a post-imperial Russia. Coop­er­a­tion is possible only if Russia ceases to pose a threat to its neigh­bours and if it respects inter­na­tional law. Today, this means above all supporting the demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion, civil society and the free media, which embody the hope for a different Russia.


Foremost, however, the West needs to support Ukraine with every­thing it needs for a victory. And regard­less of the outcome of the US election, there needs to be a fairer burden sharing between Europe and the US.

Editing by Nikolaus von Twickel


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