(Bloomberg) — Nearly a year into an invasion that was supposed to take weeks, Vladimir Putin is preparing a new offensive in Ukraine, at the same time steeling his country for a conflict with the US and its allies that he expects to last for years.
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The Kremlin aims to demonstrate that its forces can regain the initiative after months of losing ground, putting pressure on Kyiv and its backers to agree to some kind of truce that leaves Russia in control of the territory it now occupies, according to officials, advisers and others familiar with the situation.
Even Putin can’t deny the weaknesses of the military that he’s spent decades building up after his troops lost more than half their initial gains in Ukraine, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public. The persistent setbacks have led many in the Kremlin to be more realistic about their immediate ambitions, recognizing that even holding the current front line would be an achievement.
But Putin remains convinced that Russia’s larger forces and willingness to accept casualties – which already number in the tens of thousands, more than in any conflict since World War II, according to US and European estimates – will allow it to prevail despite the failings so far. The renewed offensive may start as soon as February or March, the people close to the Kremlin said. Their comments confirm warnings from Ukraine and it allies that a new Russian offensive is coming and suggest it may begin before Kyiv gets newly promised supplies of US and and European battle tanks.
Putin’s determination presages another deadly escalation in his war as Kyiv prepares a new push of its own to eject his forces, dismissing any cease-fire that leaves Russia occupying its land. The Russian leader believes he has no alternative but to prevail in a conflict he sees as an existential one with the US and its allies, the people said. A new round of mobilization is possible as soon as this spring, they said, as the economy and society are increasingly subordinated to the needs of the war.
“Putin is disappointed at how things are going but he isn’t ready to abandon his goals,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consultancy. “It just means that the route will be longer, more bloody and worse for everyone.”
US and European intelligence officials question whether Russia has the resources for a major new offensive, even after mobilizing 300,000 additional troops last fall. Ukraine’s allies, meanwhile, are stepping up weapons supplies, preparing to deliver armored vehicles and main battle tanks for the first time that could help Ukrainian troops break through Russian lines.
But Russia’s brutal, grinding attacks in places like Bakhmut, an eastern city that has limited strategic value, have worn down Ukrainian forces, diverting troops and sapping Kyiv’s ability to mount offensive operations elsewhere, according to US officials.
After lightning attacks by Ukrainian forces in the summer and fall breached its defensive lines, Russia has since stepped up protections, using trenches, tank traps and mines to slow any potential advance. Publicly, the Kremlin says there are no plans for more mobilization at present.
Longer term, Putin has approved plans to expand the ranks of the military by nearly 50% over the next few years, deploying new forces near Finland — which is in the process of joining NATO – and in the occupied regions of Ukraine. Schools and universities are reinstating military-training courses last conducted widely in the Soviet era as war preparations permeate society.
Still, some elements of realism about the disastrous performance of the military to date have begun to slip into tightly controlled state media.
“So far the results have been appalling because Russia wasn’t at all ready,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant with close Kremlin ties.
“It’s morphed into a drawn-out war and Russia doesn’t yet have enough manpower or equipment to wage it,” he said. “We must stop the Ukrainian counter-offensive and thwart the West’s efforts to defeat us by gaining the military edge.”
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Russian forces haven’t demonstrated the ability to do that since the early weeks of the invasion, retaking only one small city in the last six months and at a huge cost in casualties. Ukraine’s troops, by contrast, have consistently surprised allies and observers with their successes in pushing back the invaders.
Putin’s confidence in his military’s ability to grind out a triumph – even at a cost of vast casualties and destruction – reflects a misreading of the West’s commitment to turn back his aggression, some insiders concede. The US and its allies have steadily stepped up weapons supplies to categories once considered off-limits.
Still, US and European military officials fear the conflict could soon settle into a World War I-style artillery fight with largely stagnant front lines, a scenario that could come to favor Russia, with its larger population and military industry.
Diplomatically, Russia has sought to win supporters among non-western countries with appeals for talks on a cease-fire. Even people close to the Kremlin admit those are hopeless at present, given Ukraine’s demand that Russia pull out its troops as a condition for any deal.
The minimum the Kremlin would accept would be a temporary truce that left Russia in control of the territory its forces currently hold in order to win time to rebuild its forces, the people said. Though short of the boundaries of the regions that Putin illegally annexed in September, that would still leave Russia with a large swath of land, linking the areas it occupied before the war. As a result, the idea is a nonstarter with Kyiv and its allies.
“Unless something changes, we’re looking at a war of attrition like World War I, which could go for a long time because both sides believe time is on their side,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russia International Affairs Council. “Putin is sure either the West or Ukraine will grow tired.”
A re-election defeat in 2024 for US President Joe Biden, who has led the coalition to support Ukraine, might bring “more flexibility” on the issue in Washington, he said.
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While a new wave of sanctions pressure – in particular, the price cap imposed on Russian oil exports – has squeezed the Kremlin’s revenues, it hasn’t so far cut into Putin’s ability to finance the war. Russia still has access to billions in reserves in yuan which aren’t affected by sanctions and can help bridge budget shortfalls for as much as 2-3 years, according to economists.
Among Ukraine’s allies, too, fears are growing that the conflict will last years.
“This year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all — every inch of Ukraine and occupied — or Russian-occupied Ukraine,” US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley said Jan. 20 after a meeting of US and allied defense ministers. “But I do think at the end of the day this war, like many wars in the past, will end at some sort of negotiating table.”
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