Economic sanctions have been increasingly popular during the last century, even though they rarely work as intended. A current example of this is what happened to Russia after they invaded Ukraine. Russia continues to suffer high economic costs caused by the economic sanctions imposed by most Western nations. Russian leaders realize even now that, if the cost of continuing the war against Ukraine reaches the point where more and more Russians experience declining living standards, they might lose. A growing number of Russians see the Ukraine War as something they can’t afford and can justify getting out of. This is not a case of defending Mother Russia, which is what happened during World War 2 when Russians were proud of their successful effort to halt the German invaders and then defeat Germany with some help from Western nations. Ukraine is different as Russia is the invader. Many Russians are not comfortable with that and don’t understand why their government would invade a neighbor.
The invasion failed and the Russian people are paying for it in terms of Russian lives lost and growing hardship from sanctions and the war’s cost. The government wishes it were otherwise, but the biggest priority right now is improving the economy and that means doing something about the harsh economic sanctions imposed by Western nations. That left Russia with only two trading partners: Iran and North Korea. These two are also outcast nations suffering from sanctions that have lasted for decades and are examples of the devastating long-term impact of sanctions.
To make matters worse for Russia, Ukraine continues to receive billions in economic and military aid from NATO nations. This leads more Russians to wonder what they are being impoverished for. A growing number of Russian leaders have noticed that, but Vladimir Putin is still in charge, and he wants peace and prosperity for Russia a lot less than he wants to punish Ukraine and the West. That is not working, and Putin is running out of excuses to justify the cost for Russia to so many Russians who are suffering from the sanctions.
Russia has managed to adjust to many of the sanctions and convinced, he hopes, enough of the Russian population that the war effort is for the defense of Russia against NATO aggression. Russia has developed ways to produce more long-range missiles despite the severe economic sanctions imposed after they invaded Ukraine. Russia has found new sources for components, some of them obtained by smuggling or purchases of components that can be adapted for use in missile production. Most of the smuggling is done via Armenia and Turkey, two countries that are hospitable to smuggling if it has some economic benefits for locals. Although Turkey is a NATO member, smuggling is tolerated if the smugglers will pay the right people for access. Such corrupt behavior has long prevented Turkey from joining the European Union.
Russia has expended most of its missile stockpiles and the sanctions had, for a while, prevented Russia from replacing those missiles. Restoring Russian missile production is going to hurt Ukraine because the missiles are difficult to intercept and cause a lot of damage to Ukrainian infrastructure and armed forces. NATO is seeking to disrupt the smuggling while it provides Ukraine with more air defense systems that can deal with incoming missiles. The problem is that NATO cannot supply Ukraine with enough defensive systems to protect all the economic targets Russia wants to attack. NATO considers sanctions the best way to prevent increased Russian missile production, but it appears that current efforts will not be sufficient. This is why Ukraine is developing some very long-range UAV’s so they can hit the Russian missile factories.
The West’s solution is more effective sanctions, and that effort is underway. For sanctions to work they must constantly evolve as the sanctioned nations seek ways to evade the sanctions. This is an economic conflict. Russia can afford it, so far, because they have an annual GDP of over two trillion dollars and the ability to increase annual defense spending to over $100 billion. That’s up from $86 billion in 2022 and $66 billion in 2021. A decade ago, annual defense spending was $20 billion. This is tolerated by Russian taxpayers because, before 2022, the military threat was hypothetical. That changed in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine as part of an effort to protect Russia from purported inevitable NATO aggression. All that makes no sense to most Westerners, but Ukrainians understood as did NATO’s East European members, especially Poland and the Baltic States.
Russia does not have a blank check for defense spending. The Western sanctions did not stop Russian aggression but did impose limits to what Russia could do even with a larger defense budget. A wartime defense budget has very different priorities than it does in peacetime. For Russia, this is a major problem in Ukraine, where their faltering invasion effort turned out to be a lot more expensive than expected. For example, while the salaries of the troops and operating costs of the military came to $85 billion, the additional wartime expenses include $34 billion for lost weapons and equipment as well as $21 billion for medical care of those wounded and $26 billion for compensating the families of those killed in combat. The survivor compensation data is a good way for foreign intelligence agencies to estimate Russian casualties. Those families, especially if they consist of a wife and children, need continued support. Without this compensation you cannot obtain volunteers willing to join and remain in the military long enough to become career officers and NCOs. For these men the military is a job that they will normally hold for about twenty years before they are eligible to retire with lifetime monthly pay.
Another of Russia’s problems is simple inability to produce many high-tech weapons, or even repair existing ones, because of sanctions. Smuggling is only a partial solution because complex weapons can still be produced, even if they take longer and is more expensive. Sometimes smuggling prevents obtaining all the desired components and substitutions have to be used. The result is variants of the original weapon design. If these variants are equally effective, or something close to that, the variant is acceptable. The variants also provide more work for Ukrainian and NATO weapons intelligence specialists who examine the debris from weapons that have detonated or, in some cases, failed to do so. Variants are more likely to fail and become duds that are still dangerous if handled incorrectly.
Even without the sanctions, Russian missiles and shells normally have higher dud rates because of persistent problems with manufacturing quality control as well as errors made when storing munitions. Quality control is not helped by production of many variants of the same high-tech weapon type due to substitutions of components caused by sanctions.