After a Ceasefire, Would Russia Simply Fight Again?


Given the current stalemate in Russia’s war with Ukraine, calls for a ceasefire have increased. Those opposed, however, argue that Russia will simply use a ceasefire to rest and rearm and then attack again. That can’t be ruled out. Yet there are grounds to question this assumption. In a post-conflict environment, President Vladimir Putin would face several internal challenges that could constrain his behavior, or at least make renewed warfare a more challenging proposition.

According to 40 national security figures in a recent memo to President Joseph Biden, “If not clearly defeated in Ukraine, Moscow will continue with its territorial conquests and threaten the security of the free world.” Biden apparently agreed, stating in a speech a few days later that “if we don’t stop Putin’s appetite for power and control in Ukraine, he won’t limit himself just to Ukraine.” Sill other prominent observers view Russia as a “threat to Europe writ large” and a “sophisticated autocracy with global ambitions.”

Putin has certainly given credence to these fears, clearly stating his imperial ambitions and demonstrating his willingness to violate negotiated agreements and international borders. But ambitions are not the same as capabilities. To understand the long-term risk Russia poses, it is vital to investigate the economic, social, and political challenges Putin would face if and when the fighting in Ukraine ends. True, these challenges won’t preclude further military interventions. But they will certainly create complications, which should serve as a caveat when making assumptions about Russia’s future belligerence.



A Steadily Worsening Economy

First, consider the economic challenges. Before the war, Russia’s economy was already suffering from a decade or more of declining living standards. The causes were well known: an over-reliance on commodity exports and a dependence on imported technologies; a labor market hampered by low wages, low productivity, a declining population, and low levels of human capital; and greater state control of the economy aimed at oligarchic enrichment and social stability rather than greater efficiency. All this and more led to prolonged economic stagnation.

None of those challenges prevented the Kremlin from launching the war. And while the sanctions placed on the Russian economy after February 2022 were seen as unprecedented, Russia has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and work around them. The war exposed Russia’s dependence on not only imported computer chips but also precision machine tools and even ball bearings, yet parallel imports have helped fill the void, albeit at marked-up prices. The country’s auto industry — once fully integrated with Western brands — was largely gutted, but Chinese vehicles have now crowded the market. Russia has successfully evaded the West’s attempt to impose an oil price cap. Most importantly, high levels of state spending on the war economy and social benefits have kept the economy afloat.

Yet while Russia’s economy has remained relatively buoyant so far, 20 months into the war, the challenges are starting to accumulate. Three interrelated pressures – a labor shortage, inflation, and unsustainable spending — are already tightening their grip. The labor shortage fuels inflation, which in turn devalues the ruble, making imports even more expensive, further fueling inflation. Polling by the independent Levada Center finds that inflation is now the leading area of concern for the Russian public.

Further, the labor shortage is compounded by another enduring problem — very low levels of productivity, arguably the key driver of economic growth. Indeed, Russia has been on a downward trajectory: Whereas productivity in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries increased by 5 percent per year between 2011 and 2021, in Russia it decreased on average by 1 percent annually. The only way to raise levels of production is by adding more workers or more labor-saving technology, and Russia now increasingly suffers from a deficit of both. Not surprisingly, then, the state statistical agency Rosstat reported a further productivity decrease of 3.6 percent in 2022.

So far, the social impact has been tempered through high levels of government spending on the war and social welfare. But such expenditures on both guns and butter are unsustainable in the long run; otherwise, higher inflation and greater economic instability will ensue. How long such “military Keynesianism” can continue is subject to debate. The most dramatic example of military Keynesianism came from the United States, when spending for World War II mobilized workers and productive capacity left idle by the Great Depression. Yet Russia is currently suffering from the reverse problem: a labor shortage and an overheated economy.

Social Consequences

Even autocrats are concerned with maintaining legitimacy — hence, in Putin’s case, his well-known obsession with his approval ratings. For years, the Putin regime based its legitimacy on providing social stability and on what some called a “non-intrusion pact,” whereby society obtained a basic standard of living and was otherwise left alone as long as it stayed out of politics. Such non-intrusion ended with the war and military mobilization, especially for young men. The promise of stability has been replaced by increasing doses of nationalist propaganda, leading to a low-grade war fever among the population.

But when war ends, then what? The nation’s focus will of necessity turn inward. The true costs of the invasion, in terms of both casualties and economic hardship, will become harder to ignore. Moreover, barring substantial Russian concessions — a highly unlikely outcome — continued sanctions will make the path toward reviving economic growth even more narrow.

At least through August 2023, Levada Center surveys found that Russians overall had a positive assessment of their financial situation, achieved, the pollsters concluded, “through substantial government payouts to the public.” This suggests that the Kremlin’s ability to maintain those payments is crucial, particularly since polling has also consistently shown that those least well-off economically are less supportive of the war.

When high levels of state spending become unsustainable, Russia will require fundamental reforms to avoid stagnation or worse. Yet even well before the war, efforts at economic reform created their own challenges. Especially since the 2011–12 protests “For Fair Elections” centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Putin has styled himself as a defender of the “real Russians” in the industrial heartland in contrast to liberal cosmopolitans. But this has stymied arguments in favor of potentially painful reforms. For example, nearly 10 percent of Russians continue to live in struggling single-industry “monotowns” left over from the Soviet era, where factory closures would be especially fraught.

Russians are renowned for enduring hardship. Yet seemingly minor government attempts to raise taxes or reduce benefitshave provoked protests that have become rapidly politicized. Such protests were spontaneous reactions to reform attempts, without reliance on civil society or the political opposition, and involved large numbers of elderly and working-class Russians — that is, Putin’s purported base of support. Further, both the liberal Alexei Navalny and the far-right Yevgeny Prigozhin have demonstrated how populist denunciations of oligarchs and corrupt politicians can resonate deeply with the Russian public. The harsh treatment both men received underscores the extreme measures the regime will take to protect itself from such inflammatory rhetoric.

Political Challenges

To some, Russia might indeed appear to be a “sophisticated autocracy.” Yet viewed through a different lens, Putin faces considerable political challenges. To many observers, his decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 made no sense. But if the 2014 seizure of Crimea was a “miracle cure” for Putin’s previously sagging legitimacy, perhaps he dreamed of a repeat performance. And indeed, with the war his ratings experienced a similar spike in approval. Yet while such “rally ’round the flag” effects can be substantial, they are also temporary. Almost two years into the war, Putin is now an aging personalistic ruler, fully in charge of a country that has endured a decade or more of declining social and economic conditions — conditions that will now visibly worsen.

Admittedly, other authoritarian regimes have proven their ability to endure severe hardship, sometimes for decades. Yet Cuba, Iran, and North Korea the countries typically invoked as examples of withstanding harsh sanctions — are all revolutionary regimes, with a clear ruling ideology and a large body of cadres to support the political system. Russia, on the other hand, is a truly personalistic regime with a single individual at the helm. Evidence suggests personalistic rulers are more vulnerable to popular uprisings, in large part because when conditions become intolerable, it’s clear who is to blame.

Thus, economic hardship complicates another serious challenge facing personalistic regimes: succession. There is no doubt that Putin will win reelection next spring, probably overwhelmingly. But it is hard to envision that his campaign for a fifth term in office will generate much genuine enthusiasm. Moreover, recent mass uprisings in two neighboring states — both of which were facing worsening economic conditions — highlight the predicament. In Belarus in 2020, Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed a reelection victory one too many times. In Kazakhstan in January 2022, an increase in gas prices sparked substantial unrest that pointed to the problem of a long-term authoritarian handing power to a less charismatic successor. The leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan remained in power, but arguably only through Russian backing. Should a similar uprising occur in Russia, who will prop up Putin?

Not surprisingly, then, Putin has demonstrated tremendous anxiety about “color revolutions.” Recall that Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea was sparked by Ukraine’s “Euromaidan revolution,” after which President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country for safe haven in Russia.

There is every indication that the Kremlin is keenly aware of such dangers and will most likely use every tool at its disposal — both stick and carrot — to prevent such an outcome. Yet doing so will make economic growth and reform still more difficult. Putin might well choose to double down on greater repression and anti-Western propaganda. But absent economic growth — so essential to the rise of China — doing so will lead Russia down a path that looks more like North Korea.

Putin’s Ceasefire Calculations

To be sure, none of this tells us whether Russia’s leadership might seriously consider a ceasefire. Accumulating domestic challenges could lead Putin to keep the country focused on war no matter the cost. Some observers suggest he has no interest in a ceasefire and that the Kremlin is “clearly happy to await the outcome of the U.S. election” in the hopes of ending the war on more favorable terms if Donald Trump is elected. Others have suggested that Russia could still envision defeating Ukraine through the “full mobilization of its economy and society for war.”

At some point, though, continuing the fight could risk straining society beyond its breaking point. Levada Center research concludes that even with the partial mobilization of September 2022, “the public mood drastically deteriorated” and that “the country had not seen such a dramatic and swift decline in public mood in thirty years of regular polls.” A recent Russian Field survey shows that 58 percent of those polled are opposed to a second mobilization, with 61 percent saying they would experience “negative emotions” as a result. The recent public protests by Russian women against the prolonged deployments of their loved ones further illustrate the challenge of mobilizing sufficient manpower for a protracted war.

Moreover, recent polling by the Levada Center shows a clear majority (56 percent) of Russians support negotiations to end the war, even if they do not support giving up the territory that Russia has seized. Similarly, according to Russian Field, 48 percent prefer an end to the “special military operation,” and only 39 percent want it to continue. Moreover, 70 percent of Russians polled in the Levada survey would support Putin’s decision to end the war “this week,” while in the Russian Field survey, 74 percent said they would support Putin doing so “tomorrow,” with only 18 percent opposed. The increased number over time of Russians supporting the end of the conflict suggests war fatigue is setting in among the population.

One assumption we can safely make is that Putin and his circle regard their self-interest as paramount. Should the war in Ukraine end, restarting it or engaging in another war would demand still more of the Russian population, including greater social and economic hardship. Any new foreign interventions will rely on an ever-smaller economic base. At the very least, Kremlin leaders will need to reckon with the following: Mobilizing dwindling manpower and financial resources for yet another conquest could create greater risks to regime stability. Should talks lead to a ceasefire, Western leaders should not automatically assume the Russian leaders are simply buying time for a new war. They may not be able to.



Stephen Crowley is professor of politics at Oberlin College. His recent book is Putin’s Labor Dilemma: Russian Politics between Stability and Stagnation (Cornell University Press, 2021).

Image: Wikimedia