As Putin Bides His Time, Ukraine Faces a Ticking Clock
Both armies have tanks, artillery and tens of thousands of soldiers ready to face off on the battlefields of Ukraine in a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia. But one thing clearly sets the two sides apart: time.
Ukraine is feeling immense short-term pressures from its Western backers, as the United States and its allies treat the counteroffensive as a critical test of whether the weapons, training and ammunition they have rushed to the country in recent months can translate into significant gains.
If the Ukrainians fall short of expectations, they risk an erosion of Western support. It is a source of anxiety for top officials in Kyiv, who know that beyond battlefield muscle and ingenuity, victory may ultimately come down to a test of wills between the Kremlin and the West — and which side can muster more political, economic and industrial staying power, possibly for years.
As a result, there is a sense in Ukraine that its war effort faces a ticking clock.
“In countries that are our partners, our friends, the expectation of the counteroffensive is overestimated, overheated, I would say,” Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said in an interview this past week in Kyiv, the capital. “That is my main concern.”
The expectations of military success are only one pressure point for Ukraine. A presidential election in the United States looms next year, with the potential for a new, less supportive Republican administration.
In Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin faces his own challenges but is showing signs of operating on a much longer timeline, encumbered by economic and military limitations but free from the domestic political pressures that make continuing Western support for Ukraine so uncertain.
Having already mobilized some 300,000 recruits last September, Mr. Putin is laying the groundwork for a possible new round of conscription, having changed the law so Russian authorities can draft men by serving them with a “digital summons” online.
In private conversations, his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, has professed a willingness to dig in for the long haul, vowing to carry out more mobilizations if necessary and emphasizing that Russia is capable of conscripting as many as 25 million fighting-age men, a senior European official said.
Russia’s economy is under increasing strain, and its defense sector, like the West’s, is struggling to provide enough matériel for the front. There are signs of simmering anxiety over the Ukrainian counteroffensive. On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, castigated Russian military leadership over a lack of ammunition and threatened to pull his forces from the fighting in the embattled city of Bakhmut within days.
But Mr. Putin has defined the war effort as a top priority and vital national interest, telling Russians in a New Year’s address that “we must only fight, only keep going” against Western democracies intent on Russia’s destruction.
“Certainly I think there is a calculation in the Kremlin that Russia is more resilient than the West,” said Thomas E. Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as senior director for Russia on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.
“They do think about these electoral cycles,” Mr. Graham said. “Who knows what is going to happen in 2024 in the United States? It’s not clear where the American people are on this over the long run. I think the Kremlin and Putin do believe that in that sense, time is on their side.”
Ukraine’s leaders, on the jittery doorstep of the counteroffensive, have been making a point of projecting confidence — but not too much.
If they appear too ambitious, they could stir fears that Russia could respond with a tactical nuclear strike. Appear too modest, in contrast, and criticism arises that billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine has been spent in vain.
Ukrainian officials point to the considerable successes they have already achieved: forcing the Russian military to retreat from Kyiv last year; sinking the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva; and recapturing thousands of square miles of territory in two counterattacks last fall.
“After that, the world is ready to see the next stage of this competition, if we can use a sports metaphor,” Mr. Reznikov said.
“We have a lot of supporters of Ukraine cheering for us,” he said. “That is why they are waiting for the next match. But for us, it’s not a sports game. For us, it’s a serious challenge. For us, it’s the lives of our soldiers.”
He said the operation must be viewed as part of a larger whole.
“For me, every success during this war becomes a new stage, a new step, on the road to victory,” Mr. Reznikov said. The counteroffensive, he said, will be “just one story” in the war.
Military analysts have pointed to a likely period of probing assaults, feints and long-range strikes in the opening phase of the attack. Degrading the Russian military’s combat abilities will be as important as liberating territory, Mr. Reznikov said.
The Ukrainians see their enemy as having expended its offensive ability and as eager for a pause in fighting that could buy time to rearm and attack again.
Despite Ukraine’s worries about waning Western support, its allies have so far remained resolute, pledging hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons and aid, training Ukrainian soldiers, imposing sanctions and, to varying degrees, weaning their economies off Russian energy. NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has said the alliance must brace itself to back Ukraine over a long war, and has singled out a summit planned for July in Lithuania as a moment to formalize that commitment.
In Washington, President Biden has pledged to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes,” and could request an additional supplemental aid package for Ukraine later this year, regardless of the counteroffensive’s outcome. Administration officials expect to retain bipartisan congressional support.
But Mr. Biden is heading into a presidential election cycle that could upend U.S. backing for Ukraine, particularly if Americans elect former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner. Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. Biden’s support for Ukrainian forces, saying in an interview this year with Fox News that “ultimately,” Mr. Putin “is going to take over all of Ukraine.”
“In Ukraine, we understand we have a shortage of time as well as ammunition,” Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Parliament in the European Solidarity Party, said in an interview. “Financial aid of the European Union and G7 seems not to be endless.”
In countries like Syria and Libya, Mr. Putin for years has exploited the tendency of Western governments to lose focus or shift priorities when it comes to foreign affairs.
“Russia’s hope right now is that the peak of Western military support is going to be around the summer,” and then will dissipate, said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Virginia.
Already, the war has stretched for more than 14 months, making a yearslong protracted conflict more likely. Once wars have gone on for more than a year, they tend to last for more than a decade on average, the Center for Strategic and International Studies found in an analysis that used data on conflicts since 1946.
Mr. Putin has little incentive to end the war now, unless his hand is forced, because its continuation helps him retain power, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. Any negotiations after a military defeat would look like capitulation and make him more vulnerable at home, she said.
“Even if Ukraine is wildly successful in its upcoming counteroffensive, he is not going to be forced into some negotiated settlement,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said. “Instead, he has every incentive to fight through the challenges.”
The only exception is if Mr. Putin can come away from negotiations with something he can sell back home as enough of a victory, she said.
Only 7 percent of authoritarian leaders with governments like Russia’s have found themselves unseated during a conflict that began on their watch, Ms. Kendall-Taylor found in an analysis of conflicts since 1919, which she conducted with the political scientist Erica Frantz.
“Leaders, when they initiate the war, they are rarely ousted so long as the war continues,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said.
Some analysts believe Mr. Putin’s calculation could change if the Ukrainian counteroffensive manages to threaten Crimea.
“In polls, the only thing the Russian public was not willing to negotiate over was the status of Crimea,” said Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If Crimea is being bombarded, then it’s a failure. I think that would change things, potentially.”
Mr. Putin is also likely facing pressures that remain opaque to the outside world. In an authoritarian system, threats to the stability of a government often prove unpredictable.
Mr. Graham, the Council on Foreign Relations distinguished fellow, said Mr. Putin has security, business and political elites he still must keep on his side, noting that “it’s wrong to assume that Putin can just do anything he wants to at this point.”
“There are institutions of power and centers of power,” he added, “that you have to manage, control and dominate in some way if you’re going to stay in the game.”
Adam Entous contributed reporting.