The roots of Russia’s ‘forever war’ can be traced back to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the Soviet elite feeling humiliated by the West. Ever since Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, the country’s elite, essentially the adapted generation of former Soviet ‘elite-in-the-making’ – has aspired to re-establish what they consider Russia’s ‘lost grandeur.’ Putin has been a key figure in this, seeking to reassert Russia’s influence and challenge Western dominance. In Putin’s vision, Russia is a powerful and influential country with a historical purpose of limiting the influence of the ‘corrupt and decadent’ West. Putin’s popularity has been linked to his anti-Western and nationalist rhetoric and this, together with claims that Russia needs to counter what it describes as ‘NATO aggression’, has led to increasingly aggressive behaviour as Russia asserts its ‘sphere of influence.’

On the other hand, Ukraine, after gaining independence in 1991, has been increasingly distancing itself from Russia and aligning with European countries and values. This has created tensions with Russia, as Ukraine’s goals conflict with Russia’s goals. Russia considers Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union and NATO a threat to its political and economic influence in the region. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 were seen as a means to boost Putin’s popularity and reinforce his image as a strong leader. Although Putin and his inner circle behind the invasion envisaged a lightning attack that was supposed to last for a few days, they appear now to be prepared for a conflict that could take years, if not decades.

Russia’s ability to sustain the war via its military spending

According to some observers, Russia, after the initial shock of the invasion of Ukraine stalling and turning into a drawn-out war, has settled into a ‘zone of comfort’ by 2024. The country’s elite considers the war manageable and the Western resolve to support Ukraine fragile. Western diplomats in Moscow describe Russian officials as more self-assured than at the beginning of the invasion. They say that Putin appears to have dug in and is not willing to stop the war unless he is forced to do so.

Although Russia has faced economic turbulence during the war, being affected by sanctions and isolation from the global financial system, its economy has shown resilience and has defied expectations, with the IMF predicting its GDP growth for 2024 to be 3.2%, higher than that of any G7 country. Furthermore, Russia’s war-time deficit, which was 1.9% of GDP in 2023, is lower than the peacetime deficit in many developed countries. This has partly been attributed to the country spending its pre-war trade surplus. Thanks to energy exports, Russia has enjoyed an abnormally high positive balance of foreign trade prior to the invasion of Ukraine and had built up a significant buffer over the past 20 years. This safety margin has allowed it to survive the loss of exports without suffering devaluations, hyperinflation and the inability to provide critical imports.

Russia’s war-time economy has been boosted by a huge increase in military spending. The country is devoting an estimated 7.5% of its GDP to it, with some claiming that the real figure is closer to 9%, the highest proportion since the Cold War. This level of spending is likely to continue or even increase for years to come. However, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the numbers hide structural weaknesses that raise questions about Russia’s ability to sustain its war in Ukraine. According to RUSI, Russia’s military is likely to peak in late 2024, with the output of its military industrial complex plateauing in 2025 due to an increase in material challenges and Russia having to rely on supplies and components from Iran, North Korea, Belarus, and Syria. If the Western resolve to support Ukraine does not falter, Ukraine could increase its own military production by that time, possibly matching that of Russia.

In June 2024, Dmitry Nekrasov, the former deputy head of the analytical department of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, published an analysis (English version), in which he says that Russia’s GDP will almost certainly rise as long as the war continues. Nekrasov argues that there are only two economic factors that could reduce Russia’s ability to finance its invasion: a long-term decrease of oil price to $30 per barrel or a labour shortage if the war continues for several more years. Although the war’s distortions harm the economy, the more serious effects of Russia’s war-time economy will be felt only in the long term; in the medium term, these problems are not critical threats that could force Putin to end the war.

Changes in Russia’s military leadership and the transformation of Russian society

In today’s Russia the entire political system is constructed around Putin, with reshuffles in his inner circle quite rare. However, even before Russia’s presidential election in March 2024, speculations arose of Putin using the new term to perpetuate his rule by clearing the way for a fresher generation. On May 12th, 2024, Putin replaced Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu, who had served 12 years in the role, with Andrei Belousov, former First Deputy Prime Minister and long-term economic adviser to Putin. Shoigu became the head of the Security Council of Russia instead, overseeing the country’s intelligence services. The move also saw Nikolai Patrushev being replaced, who has long been considered one of the most powerful people in Russia.

The shakeup appears to be in response to ministry and army officials being involved in corruption scandals, with at least five individuals having been arrested over the past few months. Belousov is described as ‘clean by Moscow standards’ when it comes to corruption. On the other hand, his appointment suggests that Putin wants to ensure that Russia will win the war in Ukraine through attrition. Belousov’s task is to make defence spending more efficient and rapidly modernise the military. Some analysts have argued that considerations similar to those in the RUSI report could have instigated the recent changes in Russia’s military leadership. Despite being seen a technocratic economist, Belousov may be ideologically better equipped to lead Russia’s war effort in Putin’s eyes as he is said to have been amongst a minority of Putin’s advisers who supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Against this backdrop, Putin appears to see the war in Ukraine as inseparable from the destiny of Russia. A former senior Russian official recently told The Guardian that Putin could never admit to having made a mistake by starting the war and now must see it through. The war has become a central issue for Putin, highlighted by the fact that he declared his candidacy for presidential election while speaking with the veterans of the war, who he said should help form a new ‘management class’ to replace the old, disgraced elite.

Russia’s threats against the West

Putin has publicly downplayed the potential of a war with the West, having said that he did not believe that the United States was planning a nuclear war. However, in response to Ukraine’s Western allies allowing the use of their weapons to strike inside Russia, Putin recently warned that Russia could provide long-range weapons to nations hostile to Western countries. He also suggested that Russia could take ‘asymmetrical steps’ elsewhere in the world and reiterated his country’s readiness to use nuclear weapons if it sees a ‘threat to its sovereignty.’

Dmitry Medvedev, former president of Russia and current deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear weapons. He echoed Putin’s recent statements, saying that Russia regards all long-range weapons used by Ukraine as being directly controlled by militaries from NATO countries, arguing that this means participation in the war, not military assistance. Medvedev reiterated that it would be a ‘fatal mistake’ for the West to think that Russia was not ready to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, having previously threatened Western countries with nuclear strikes. Although Medvedev frequently makes such threats, with some commentators arguing that his statements could be designed to make him seem un-statesmanlike and therefore not a threat to Putin’s authority, they could nevertheless discourage public opinion from supporting Ukraine.

Russian disinformation campaigns

One key aspect of Russia’s ‘forever war’ is its use of hybrid warfare, employing a range of tactics including disinformation, propaganda and covert operations. Russia’s state-controlled media and propagandists have disseminated false or exaggerated reports about the war in Ukraine to create a distorted narrative, using bots, trolls, and fake accounts on social media platforms to amplify their messages.

In June 2024, France’s disinformation watchdog, Viginum, disclosed details of the large disinformation campaign targeting several European countries known as Matryoshka, noting that the Russian diplomatic network has participated in amplifying its messages since at least September 2023. The ongoing Russian Doppelganger disinformation operation has also shown its adaptability, with themes regularly changing to current geopolitical issues. Such narratives are expected to continue alongside protests in Europe, with the changing narratives having the potential to influence voters. Operation Overload, another widespread pro-Russian disinformation campaign, has been targeting Western fact-checkers, newsrooms, and researchers. The majority of the content in these campaigns has focused on Ukraine, with other common themes being major public events in Europe, such as the 2024 Olympics and UEFA Euro 2024, or the economic crisis. However, Russia’s disinformation is not limited to Western countries, they are also targeting audiences across the world, with the narratives supporting the anti-colonial sentiment in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, encouraging distrust of Western governments and positioning Russia as a better strategic partner.

Russian operatives engaged in sabotage across Europe

In addition to threats and disinformation, intelligence agencies in Europe have recently raised concerns about Russia adding more aggressive methods, including sabotage and intimidation, to its operations in Europe. In April 2024, two German-Russian nationals were arrested in Germany for allegedly plotting attacks on military and logistics sites, and in the United Kingdom two men were charged with arson at a warehouse storing aid for Ukraine, allegedly acting on behalf of Russian intelligence. The same month, Belgium opened a criminal probe into Russian election interference and the Czech government said it had uncovered a Russian network trying to influence politics, including payments to European politicians. In June, a Russian speaker from the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine was arrested after causing an explosion in a hotel room near the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. The man was found with materials intended for the manufacture of explosive devices, as well as guns and false passports in his room, and is suspected of planning a terrorist act.

Closing thoughts on Russia’s ‘forever war’ with the West

As long as Vladimir Putin remains the President of Russia, it is unlikely that there will be any return to the pre-invasion status quo with the West. Russia will likely remain in a ‘forever war’ – some call it Cold War 2.0 – with the West, affected by sanctions and responding with disinformation and subversion.

Under the pressure of war and sanctions, Russia is likely to increasingly turn into a 21st century version of the Soviet Union, with a heavily state-controlled economy focussed on the needs of the military and the defence-industrial complex. Some analysts argue that there are only two economic factors that could reduce Russia’s ability to finance its war in Ukraine from ‘indefinitely’ to ‘a few years’: a long-term decrease of oil price and a labour shortage.

Under the constitutional amendments passed in 2020, Putin could remain in power until 2036. As a result, the prospect of Russia under Putin’s new term, or possibly two terms until that year is likely to be an increasingly militarised society. Insiders describe the future of the country as a stagnant, militaristic nation, with an elite and a society that are resigned to Putin’s lifelong rule, with Russia’s elite using the confrontation and ‘war of civilisations’ narrative as a basis to perpetuate their rule.