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Interview: Russia's War On Ukraine Could Drag On For Years

Russia expert Mark Galeotti says, "We are inevitably going to see the economic costs of this war, as well as the human costs of this war, increase."
Russia expert Mark Galeotti says, "We are inevitably going to see the economic costs of this war, as well as the human costs of this war, increase."

Russia expert Mark Galeotti is a political analyst, author, and honorary professor at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Galeotti says that while Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his country on a war footing, Ukraine's Western partners have not done the same. He predicts Russia's war against Ukraine could drag out for a few more years, with neither side strong enough to defeat the other. Fighting will determine, Galeotti predicts, "where the lines get drawn and what is the shape of the Ukraine that emerges."

RFE/RL: I have to start with a confession: I have rarely felt so sorry for a writer than I felt for you when you were about to finish a book on Yevgeny Prigozhin (the founder of the Wagner mercenary group who was killed in a mysterious plane crash in August 2023, two months after he staged a mutiny), and then he went on his last voyage up in the sky. Let me ask, regardless: Have we seen the last of the Prigozhin saga?

Mark Galeotti: In a way, it was a good thing for us, because it allowed us to arrive to a definitive conclusion, the final chapter, period. As for whether his saga is over or not, in one way it is: No matter what conspiracy theories might claim, it is very unlikely that he is still alive and sitting on a beach somewhere. But, on the other hand, his shadow is still cast across Russia.

From the various dismissals and things we're seeing within the Russian Defense Ministry, it's proof that actually a lot of what Prigozhin was saying was right. He may have been a ghastly human being, but it doesn't mean to say he was always wrong.

Also, it was shocking for the Russian elite to see Prigozhin killed. Whatever they thought about him, a deal had been struck. And this is the first time Putin actually broke a deal with an insider.... The "po ponyatiyam" (a Russian phrase meaning "by the code," which refers to unwritten rules that govern the criminal underworld) [means that] once you've made a deal, you have to stick to it. And when Putin broke that, something also broke.

It may well be that, as we see his increasingly Brezhnevian (the stagnation marked by the rule of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev) reign continue, that it actually will be a factor. So yes, Prigozhin is definitely gone, but his shadow remains.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, was killed in a plane crash in August 2023.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, was killed in a plane crash in August 2023.

RFE/RL: Another figure also departed this world, and in contrast to Prigozhin, he was largely viewed as a heroic figure, and that would be Aleksei Navalny. With Navalny no longer on the political stage, how are the fortunes of the Russian opposition looking?

Galeotti: Obviously, there's this Russian emigre opposition who are essentially irrelevant, to be honest, sad though it is to admit. In terms of within Russia, there is no organized opposition at all. That doesn't mean to say everyone's happy.

Ironically, this is something that may come back to bite the Putin regime, in that when you have an organized opposition, it's obviously more dangerous. But then if it also begins to become more powerful, you have someone with whom you can negotiate, or if need be, you know who to crack down upon.

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What we have is just a lot of generalized dissatisfaction in the country: whether it's because of the war and the fear of mobilization, whether it's because some people are making a lot of money but a lot of people are actually experiencing hardship, whether it's simply because you're fed up with the old man who seems as if he will never be going, or whatever it is.

The risk is that at some point that will catalyze, and the parallel that actually I've heard Russians use -- including one person from within the security apparatus -- is what happened in Poland with the Solidarity movement [in the 1980s]. Who'd have thought that some electrician called Lech Walesa would emerge as the champion? [There is a] risk that a movement can actually erupt almost out of nowhere.

RFE/RL: What are the odds of that, speaking bluntly?

Galeotti: Today or tomorrow? None at all. The point is that, firstly, the current economic bump, economic improvement that the Russian economy is facing, is basically because the government is spending a lot of money. It's using up its own reserves in the process, and frankly, a lot of it is blood money.

It's being paid precisely to people who are fighting or who have died in their battles. Or else it's money that's being spent on the defense-industrial complex, attracting workers to the factories. That's pushing up everyone's wages, and that's good for them in the immediate time, but it's also inflationary.

We are inevitably going to see the economic costs of this war, as well as the human costs of this war, increase.

RFE/RL: Will we witness one sudden collapse or a gradual deterioration that they can somehow deal with?

Galeotti: What we see is, in some ways, again to use the parallel with Brezhnev, a kind of slow decline in stagnation. There's no money for research and development or investment; people aren't happy but not so immediately unhappy. But the point is that stuff happens. The regime is no longer good at dealing with crises. We can go back to Prigozhin, for example, as well, which was handled very badly….

There are going to be huge crises, and it could be Putin's health; it could be a sudden Ukrainian breakthrough on the front lines, maybe with a counteroffensive next year; it could be some sort of major economic crisis. The problem is predicting when the unpredictable is going to happen. I have no idea.

It could be in a month's time that Putin doesn't wake up. Or it could be that, in two years' time, the economy really starts to [take] a hit. It's the crises that are going to determine it, and they're so hard to understand.

RFE/RL: Fair enough. As promised, I wanted to ask you about the government reshuffle. We are definitely seeing some sort of changes in the power paradigm in the Kremlin. What exactly are we witnessing? What conclusions can be drawn at this point?

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

Galeotti: This is definitely the Putin regime digging in for the long term and anticipating that, essentially, it's going to be a war-fighting state for the foreseeable future. Not specifically about Ukraine, but because it now regards itself as being essentially at war with the West; Ukraine is just one battlefield.

If we're looking at the Defense Ministry, clearly, it's about trying to bring greater efficiency and not a grand elimination of corruption -- but less corruption because every ruble you save is a ruble that can be spent on the war.

That is part of the process. It's a kind of whole government structure to being a war-fighting machine. The other part of the structure is generational politics. You have a generation of 60-something-year-olds and older. So, 50-something-year-olds, the next political generation, are getting a bit impatient as Putin and his collection of 70-year-olds still stay in power.

Also these are kleptocrats; they didn't sign up for some grand existential war with the West. They wanted to be able to steal and then enjoy the wealth, which basically means being able to travel and buy spare parts for your BMW and everything else.

RFE/RL: What's the point of stealing if you can't spend it?

Galeotti: Exactly, exactly. They want the old days, where you steal at home and bank abroad. What we're actually seeing now -- and this is particularly thanks to the plan of Sergei Kiriyenko, (the first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration) -- is to cultivate the next generation down. To find the ambitious wannabes and encourage them to be sort of Putinists.

Putin loves divide-and-rule, and that's how he's running the system throughout. So now, instead of horizontal, one faction, one individual against another, it's now going to be vertical. He can pit the 40-year-olds against the 60-year-olds, shall we say.

We're seeing, for example, the distribution of seats, companies, and assets not going to oligarchs, but going to the sort of little "minigarchs." We are seeing a variety of new figures like Dimitri Patrushev (Russian banker and politician serving as deputy prime minister for agriculture since May), but a lot of others as well. Again, the idea is creating a new generation of people who he can draw on and who he hopes will be more loyal.

RFE/RL: Who he will also encourage to fight both the older generation and among themselves?

Galeotti: Of course, absolutely. Everyone has to be fighting everyone else.

Mark Galeotti says "the Putin regime [is] digging in for the long term."
Mark Galeotti says "the Putin regime [is] digging in for the long term."

RFE/RL: Putin finally is consigning the entire country to be a war-fighting country for years to come. And I suppose the entire West sees this. Are they taking the appropriate measures? Learning lessons, taking precautions to stay in the fight?

Galeotti: The honest answer is no. That's not just because of Western failure. It's because what no one really wants to admit is that the Ukraine conflict is not that important to the West. You know, everyone, all the politicians say that it's crucial and a way of keeping everyone in security. Certainly no one's behaving as if that's the case. I mean, what, the Russians are spending 6.9 percent of [gross domestic product (GDP)] , according to their own figures, which is certainly an underestimate. In the West, we're still seeing some countries not yet making the 2 percent GDP defense figure of NATO members, that kind of thing.

There are some specific things taking place, particularly ammunition production. By the end of this year, we'll start to see European ammunition production actually begin to get serious. But in general terms, we are not willing to totally reorient our economic and political systems to fight a war that frankly now does not really pose a great threat....

A Ukrainian defeat is no longer seriously thought of as meaning that Russian tanks will be up against the Romanian border. A Ukrainian defeat will mean that the Russians will take part of the country, impose certain political constraints to subordinate the rest. But that's the worst-case scenario.

RFE/RL: Is that perception grounded in truth, do you think?

Galeotti: I think so. I think the days when actually the Soviets -- there's a Freudian slip for you -- the Russians could actually roll across Ukraine, I think, are long gone. And frankly, also, the prospects of the Ukrainians being able to push every single Russian soldier out of every single square centimeter of Ukraine [are] also fairly hard to imagine. Victory and defeat will be found in the gap between those.

RFE/RL: I read an article of yours where you try to predict -- thankless as that task might be -- what Russia would look like by 2030. You also speak about Ukraine, you say Ukraine will be de facto divided much like Korea, although it could still at any point explode into violence. Is the conclusion to draw from this that the war now is going on to define the divide lines?

Galeotti: I wish it were not so, but I think that seems to be the likely situation. Also because, let's be honest, neither side has the capacity to sustain this kind of tempo of war indefinitely. We can see a couple more years in which they can maintain this kind of tempo, but after that point, for economic as well as human reasons, you know, inevitably the conflict will not stop, but it'll be more like two punch-drunk boxers in the ring sort of hanging on the ropes and occasionally coming out with a flurry of blows.

In that context, yeah, it's a question of where the lines get drawn and what is the shape of the Ukraine that emerges. Because, again, there's a big difference between a kind of an impoverished and miserable Ukraine that still risks constant attack by Russia or whether it is brought into NATO or the European Union or these sorts of things.

RFE/RL: In that same article, you also speak at length about Putin's potential successors and how he will pit them against each other. There's one particular [analogy] that caught my eye: that he will act like King Lear, pitting daughters against each other. How likely is it that he will end up like King Lear in the end, forsaken by all?

Galeotti: Wouldn't that be a lovely thought? It's a nice question. I suspect that the answer is "No," in the sense of the one thing that this system is good at is basically maintaining the security of the tsar and the central system, and you might say it's going to be one extreme or another.

If he falls, he will fall catastrophically, which might be a kind of King Lear but King Lear sitting in The Hague or King Lear fleeing the mob. It's much more likely though, alas, that he limps through until death or ill health takes him out of the equation.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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