Two events of profound, and maybe even decisive, importance for the outcome of the Ukraine war happened last week: the Davos gathering of the World Economic Forum and the meeting of top defense officials from some 50 members of the Western coalition at the Ramstein air base in Germany.
Russian business and political elite used to flock to Davos and throw lavish parties, but this year, no one even noticed their absence (Kommersant, January 19).
Moscow’s attention was centered on Ramstein, and every sign of disagreement was amplified as a success of President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of dividing the hostile West (Izvestiya, January 21). The agendas for both events were certainly quite different, but they in fact addressed two key horizons of the war.
The commitments achieved in Ramstein by the defense ministers ensured that Russia cannot attain any success in the expected spring and summer offensive operations, and the deliberations of economic planners denied Russia any chance to win a long war.
The Leopard battle tanks
The postponement of the decision on delivering the German-made Leopard-2 main battle tanks to Ukraine was indeed a disappointment for Kyiv, but Moscow is wrong to interpret it as a major split among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 21).
Domestic political complications in Germany necessitate this delay, but the allies understand perfectly well the difficulties of reaching compromises in a coalition government and respect the need to the deliberations their due time (Novayagazeta.eu, January 20). Even Russian “patriotic” commentators point out that the tank issue is essentially resolved and that Ukrainian soldiers have already begun training for operating the Leopards and the British-made Challenger-2 tanks (Topwar.ru, January 21). The sum total of allied commitments made in Ramstein amounts to such a massive supply of modern weapon systems that Ukraine is set to gain effective superiority over the badly equipped and demotivated Russian forces (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 20).
Long-range strike systems
The next critical matter for follow-up regarding Western discussions on military support to Ukraine is not tanks, but rather long-range strike systems that could disrupt Russian command and logistical centers not only in Donbas but also in Crimea (Gazeta.ru, January 19). There is no shortage of claims for forceful responses to such escalation, but every capability for high-, and even, low-precision missile strikes has already been used by Russian forces (RBC, January 20).
What has made a strong impression on Muscovites is the appearance of short-range air-defense Pantsir-S1 systems on the rooftops of several military headquarters (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 21). The United States has yet to grant a decision on sending Ukraine the MQ-1C Grey Eagle unmanned combat aerial vehicle, but the Russian military leadership has already been unnerved by the Ukrainian drone strike on Engels air base (Svoboda.org, January 20). The precautions may appear excessive, but they make more practical sense than bragging about the nuclear-propelled Poseidon underwater drone, which Putin advertised back in 2018, but not one testable prototype has been produced as of yet (Topwar.ru, January 18).
Reforming the Russian Armed Forces
Seeking to counteract steadily increasing NATO support for Ukraine, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a plan for reforming the Russian Armed Forces and increasing their total strength from 1.15 million (not including various mercenaries and paramilitary forces) to 1.5 million (Ridl.io, January 18).
Besides demographic problems, ambitions for building such military might are certain to be thwarted by the fast-progressing economic degradation within Russia, and the firm statement in Davos by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about the coming “decades of recession” in Russia has left few doubts regarding this dynamic (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 17).
Ukraine as growth area
Ukraine, on the contrary, was examined by the opportunity-seeking Davos crowd as a potential growth area where investments could generate attractive returns (Republic.ru, January 18). The mood at the revived post-pandemic World Economic Forum was more upbeat than most observers had expected, and one of the positive impressions at the event was that Russia’s capacity for disrupting the world order had diminished (Kommersant, January 20).
Global energy markets have stabilized, and the expected decline of Russian exports is set to be compensated by other sources (The Bell, January 15). Europe has learned not only the lesson of resilience against Russian energy blackmail but also the art of striking back. As such, the Russian energy sector is set to experience severe curtailing, particularly as the European Union ban on importing Russian petroleum products goes into force on February 5 (The Moscow Times, January 17).
Russia has tried to expand its oil exports to Asia, even at a $20-$25 discount from the benchmark Brent crude price, but it cannot compensate for the loss of European markets—and cannot hope that China will fuel its revived growth with Russian energy imports (The Insider, January 20).
Prospects for the Chinese economy were a major theme in Davos, and Vice-Premier Liu He sought to reassure Western partners while demonstrating a more cooperative and less “wolf warrior”–style of diplomacy (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 18).
Beijing is aware that it can only regain economic dynamism by charting a cautious course with the war in Ukraine, and it diverts increasingly from Putin’s long-war strategy (Svobodnaya pressa, January 20). This course will be fine-tuned during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s forthcoming visit to China, which is attracting keen attention in Moscow (Kommersant, January 19). The Kremlin still counts on escalation of tensions in East Asia, which would drive US attention away from Europe (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 17).
The Davos debates evaluated multiple political and security risks, and while China remains a major variable, the accounts of impacts produced by Russia point to a much more diminished global role for Moscow. Indeed, the global economy has adjusted to reduced flows of commodity exports from Russia and to the strictly sanctioned imports, particularly of modern technology.
Furthermore, the war’s outcome is factored as a win for Ukraine, producing a spike of demand for investment, and a loss for Russia, condemning it to protracted stagnation. This outlook may appear optimistic, and investors typically need a positive perspective, but in essence, it is a plain assessment of the correlation of forces in Russia’s self-defeating attempt to confront the West. The Ramstein meeting has proven that disagreements are not setbacks in, but rather stimuli for achieving stronger Western unity, which Russia can neither corrupt nor intimidate.
- Pavel K. Baev is Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published by Eurasia Daily Monitor 23 January 2023