top of page

A Battle of Attrition: Why Putin Believes He Can Outlast the West

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“My people can suffer like no one else” – Sergei Shoigu

Over nine months into Putin’s war, it is clear that it has not gone to plan. Terrible military losses, political isolation, sobering economic forecasts, and hundreds of thousands of fleeing Russians all point to an increasingly weakened yet dangerous Russian Federation. But, for Vladimir Putin, all is not yet lost. The Russian President still believes he can win this war, and while he may never be able to take Kyiv, he may still be able to neuter Ukraine’s sovereignty and annex its southern lands. The possibility and scale of his success, however, all depends on how far the West is willing to suffer to keep Russia at bay.

The impact of Western military support has often been misunderstood since the war began. In the heydays of the war, memes and social media posts depicting ‘Saint Javelin’ and Queen Elizabeth II holding an NLAW littered the internet. It was widely believed that without Western military aid, Ukraine would not have survived the initial Russian onslaught, but this is not entirely true. Whilst Western aid did help, it was originally Ukraine’s forward thinking and formidable artillery arsenal that truly gave Putin a bloody nose.

As time has gone on however, this has changed. Ukraine’s artillery is still its most important asset, but Western precision weapons such as HIMARS, and a steady supply of ammunition, kits, and armour from neighbouring states, along with trillions of dollars of aid is now what is keeping Ukraine afloat. Without it, Ukraine would most likely begin to falter. This consistent support has been instrumental in helping Ukraine to push back around Kharkiv in September and more recently in Kherson.

Putin knows this, and this is where he has set his sights. He is acutely aware that, while the West may appear relatively united, there are fractures and divisions brewing beneath the surface. He also knows that Western governments are highly vulnerable to their consumers. Hence the Russian government’s approach to the global energy crisis: designed explicitly to cause as much harm to the West as possible, in a bid to force them into conceding to Russia’s demands. This policy of energy brinkmanship may well pay off. As western governments tried to fill their storages before winter, knowing that Putin would seek to coerce them using his energy dominance, Putin began to simultaneously limit flows into Europe.

This plan may yet succeed. This winter, seeing the prospect of high energy bills lasting well into the next year and beyond, pressure from Western consumers may cause governments to buckle. In Italy, following the rise of a new far-right government, this may already be taking place; Hungary’s populist government caved months ago. Talks of setting energy price caps will likely do little to help consumers, nor protect governments, who may need to dish out billions in order to help their citizens survive the winter.

He also knows the West do not want this war to last forever. As much as the U.S and European leaders say they are “willing to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes”, they are not. There will come a time sooner or later when the west will pressure Ukraine into a peace, yet it is a matter of how generous this peace is to Ukraine. Undoubtedly, no one wants to see Russia get away with its imperialistic land-grab, but as the global energy crisis continues to ravage Europe, domestic conditions may encourage governments to seek a hastier conclusion to the war.

The West, on the other hand, is hoping for Russia to get tired first. Whether it is from the hundreds of thousands of freezing Russian mobilists, the increasingly nervous securocrat elites, or even the people itself, support for the war and for Putin is falling. Although state security and media are working overtime, they will not be able to contain unrest forever. People are happy for Putin to engage in his empire building project, so long as they do not feel it’s effects at home. However, since mass mobilisation, and relentless sanctions, the social contract is being challenged.

Putin is down, but he is far from being out. The West is tired but is a long way from being ready to abandon the Ukrainian people to their fate. Putin is banking on his people being willing to suffer more than those in the West. Ultimately, without western backing, Ukraine will be unlikely to sustain this war, and the moment the West decides that they have had enough, it may well be the end of the conflict as we know it. With many Western governments fearful of electoral defeat in the wake of poor economic forecasts and a high cost of living, many governments may well cave to Putin’s energy blackmail.

The question remains, will western governments be more concerned with their rising energy bills, or will they be able to endure through the winter, and continue supplying aid to the millions of Ukrainians who are suffering in this war? It is a sad question to ask for many reasons, yet the questions as to how long this war lasts, and how far Ukraine is able to defend itself, may rely on its answer.


bottom of page