Top Russian weakness that West can exploit:  Ukraine as Russia’s Soft Underbelly

This essay series identifies 10 of the most critical vulnerabilities in today’s Russia across the defense, economic, and diplomatic and political domains. 

10 essays analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian Federation were released by the Center for New American Security (CNAS): “Identifying Russian Vulnerabilities and How to Leverage Them”

Vulnerability 6: Ukraine as Russia’s Soft Underbelly

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Vulnerability 5: Russia’s Reliance on Oil and Gas

Ukraine’s growing ability to impose costs on Russia—on the battlefield; through asymmetric means; and in the diplomatic, cultural, and legal spheres—will pose a significant long-term vulnerability for Russia.

By Eric Ciaramella

As they fight their defensive war for survival, Ukraine’s state and citizens now represent a serious vulnerability for Russia and for President Vladimir Putin’s regime. This vulnerability is related primarily to the growing ability of Ukraine’s military and intelligence services to impose costs on Russia, but it also manifests in other domains. It is an irony of Putin’s own making: despite claiming to have invaded Ukraine to increase Russia’s security, Putin’s blunder saddled his country with a far more dangerous challenge. So long as Russian forces occupy Ukrainian territory, Ukraine will constitute, in the words of Carnegie scholar Eugene Rumer, “the most threatening, hostile, irreconcilable enemy on Russia’s western frontier.”

The military challenge Russia faces from its neighbor is undeniable. But it was not inevitable. Ukraine’s army was in catastrophic disrepair in 2014, when Putin illegally annexed Crimea and launched an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine managed to defend itself for nearly eight years, aided by training and a small amount of weaponry from the West. Even with this support, the Ukrainian military posed no serious threat to the Russian military before February 2022, when Putin justified his full-scale invasion by purporting to seek Ukraine’s “demilitarization.”Now, Ukraine boasts one of the most formidable forces on the European continent, armed with sophisticated American and European equipment. On the margins of the NATO summit in Lithuania in July, Western leaders committed to guaranteeing weapons supplies to Kyiv in perpetuity.

The risk to Crimea—Putin’s crown jewel—could eventually become acute as well. Ukrainian officials have telegraphed that a full-blown offensive to liberate the peninsula is probably not in the cards, and it does not appear likely that the Ukrainian military will reach the administrative boundary this year.But Crimea is far from secure. Ukraine has already shown it can strike targets on the peninsula; in September alone, it destroyed two docked Russian warships and severely damaged the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol. Armed with new long-range missiles and drones, it is in a position to hold Russian military and logistical facilities on the peninsula at permanent risk. Moscow’s options to keep Crimea resupplied are limited. If the overland route that Russian forces seized last year becomes impassable, they will have to rely increasingly on the Kerch Strait. Russia’s multibillion-dollar bridge will then become a death trap, with attacks like the ones last October and this past July becoming the norm. In this respect, too, Putin is the author of his own misfortune: Ukraine and the West refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but the risk that Ukrainian forces would rain missiles down on Sevastopol was, prior to the full-scale invasion, minuscule. 

In the occupied territories, meanwhile, Ukrainian partisans—some self-organized, some with help from Ukraine’s capable intelligence services—are diligently undermining Russian authority. Dozens of Russian Installed collaborators have been killed in car bombings and shootings. Arson attacks against warehouses and checkpoints occur at regular clips. University of Ottawa professor Jean-François Ratelle notes that the Ukrainian insurgency remains “highly decentralized and compartmentalized,” and that its discipline and limited aims have made it effective despite its relatively small size. The pace of partisan activities has picked up in recent months, highlighting the limits of Russian counterinsurgency tactics. 

Russia has not been able to spare its own internationally recognized territory from the consequences of its war, either. Mysterious fires break out at factories and government buildings. Trains derail. Energy facilities are sabotaged. Kremlin-linked propagandists are assassinated in major Russian cities. The Nord Stream pipeline, which Russia spent years bringing to fruition, now has a gaping hole in it. Repeated explosions at airfields deep inside Russia have destroyed bomber and transport aircraft. In May, a drone exploded atop one of the Kremlin’s domes. Russia’s humiliation was compounded a few weeks later, when four of its aircraft were shot down in a single day in its own airspace, near the border with Ukraine. Cross-border raids by armed groups claiming to be anti-Kremlin militias are now a regular occurrence. Since July, drone attacks have targeted skyscrapers in central Moscow that house Russian government offices. 

Despite claiming to have invaded Ukraine to increase Russia’s security, Putin’s blunder saddled his country with a far more dangerous challenge.

Kyiv has declined to confirm its involvement in many of these incidents. But Ukraine’s intelligence services and agent networks seem to be pursuing an opportunistic cost-imposition strategy. Indeed, Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Chief, Kyrylo Budanov, warned earlier this year that attacks would occur “deeper and deeper” inside Russia. With Ukraine currently unable to mount a symmetrical response to Russian missile attacks, its reliance on unconventional warfare—in some ways, a mirror image of the tactics Russia has used against Ukraine and the West since 2014—makes perfect sense. Ukraine’s long-range drone program has been steadily expanding, and attacks against Russian military and government targets and critical infrastructure will only grow more frequent. “Until the territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored,” Budanov said, “there will be problems inside Russia.”

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ukrainian IT specialists have joined a volunteer cyber army devoted to wreaking havoc in Russia. These cyber guerillas’ links to the Ukrainian military are hard to pin down, but they have caused significant headaches for Russian firms and organizations, disrupting public services and commercial activity. Ukrainian hacker groups have also doggedly pursued the private data of Russian military and intelligence officials and posted it online. Russia’s countermeasures, meanwhile, have been unimpressive: Ukraine’s digital infrastructure has proven far more resilient to Russian cyberattacks than anticipated.

Ukraine is also using its newfound diplomatic firepower to thwart Russia’s war machine and magnify the damage to its global image. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for weapons and sanctions, bolstered by round-the-clock lobbying from Ukrainian diplomats and civil society groups, have caused the United States, Europe, and other partners to take sweeping actions to punish Russia and support Ukraine since the invasion began. The scope of these actions—sanctions, military aid, and other measures—would have been far more modest were it not for Ukraine’s power of persuasion and public relations savvy. Ukraine has notched fewer victories in the Global South, but Zelensky’s appearance in May at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia and meetings with his Indian and Indonesian counterparts on the margins of the G-7 summit in Japan show that Russia does not monopolize the narrative outside the West. Meanwhile, repeated votes of censure at the U.N. show that Russia has few reliable allies. Ukraine’s sudden emergence as a soft power juggernaut also spells long-term trouble for Russia. Ukrainian activists have forced Russian musicians and performers who want to continue working in the West to denounce the war or else face a boycott. Ukrainian officials and athletes are cajoling the West into freezing Russian and Belarusian athletes out of international sporting competitions, especially the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Russian soft power was already on the decline before the invasion; Ukraine will make sure it is dead and buried. 

Ukraine’s legal minds also pose a growing risk to Russia. Ukrainian state-owned gas company Naftogaz’s recent international arbitration victory in its long-running case against Gazprom provides a taste of what is to come: the Russian company owes $5 billion for its seizure of Ukrainian assets in Crimea, and Naftogaz is seeking to enforce the judgment against Russian assets in third countries. Ukrainian researchers are also meticulously gathering data on the economic and property damages inflicted by Russia since the invasion began. Moscow can expect a wave of lawsuits and demands for reparations in the years to come. The West might be hesitant to seize frozen Russian assets and make them available for Ukraine’s reconstruction, but that position will become increasingly untenable as the Ukrainians press their moral advantage and the bills come due.

The West might be hesitant to seize frozen Russian assets and make them available for Ukraine’s reconstruction, but that position will become increasingly untenable as the Ukrainians press their moral advantage and the bills come due.

The scale of Russian war crimes means that Kyiv will pursue accountability for generations. Zelensky’s push for a Nuremberg-style tribunal for Putin and his top aides has met with some skepticism, but Ukraine’s backers seem eager to find a solution. As prosecutions get underway, Russian officials might never again be able to set foot in large swaths of the globe. Already, the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant for Putin is complicating his overseas travel, with South Africa forced to disinvite him from a major summit with developing economies in August. If Ukraine cannot achieve accountability through international law, history shows that actors may pursue other options. Budanov’s statements indicate a willingness to pursue extrajudicial punishments: “Any perpetrator that committed any war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine […] will be found and eliminated in any part of the world.” Ukraine’s intelligence services, for example, might consider Israel’s efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice or its decades-long, globe-spanning assassination campaign against the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. The West would view such developments with unease—and one should hope that international law will provide enough avenues for accountability—but, in the end, few will come to the defense of war criminals. 

Russian Efforts to Mitigate or Offset the Vulnerability 

The Kremlin has been slow to grasp the consequences of having created a determined, capable, Western-backed adversary at its doorstep. Although some prominent Russian nationalists have acknowledged the problem, Russian officials’ deep-rooted chauvinism toward Ukrainians has meant that they perennially underestimate their neighbor’s capacity and will to resist. Putin’s belief that his forces would march into Kyiv unopposed was the most tragic manifestation of this chauvinism, but it has persisted amid battlefield setbacks. When a Ukrainian missile sank the Russian flagship Moskva in the spring of 2022, for example, Russian officials and propagandists were quick to blame everyone else: NATO, bad weather, even the Russian navy’s own corruption. They could not fathom the possibility that Ukraine had secretly designed, tested, and fielded a deadly new capability. 

Even if Moscow fully appreciated the challenge it faces, it has few options to address it. Ukrainians brush off the threat of retaliation by arguing that there is little more Russia could do to inflict pain; they appear unfazed even by the prospect of nuclear weapons use. Moreover, Russia’s terror-bombing campaign against Ukrainian cities, launched last fall ostensibly in retaliation for the Crimean Bridge attack, has failed to erode Ukraine’s willingness to challenge Russia across all domains. Putin might return to his earlier attempts to target the Ukrainian leadership, but Russia’s ability to do so remains questionable. In any case, Russia’s long-term vulnerability is not Zelensky or any particular group of Ukrainian officials: Putin has made unyielding foes out of tens of millions of Ukrainians. Ukraine has the will and unity to sustain its fight even under different future leadership. 

Opportunities for the U.S. and its Allies to Exploit the Vulnerability

In supporting Ukraine’s legitimate right to self-defense, the United States is already magnifying many aspects of the vulnerability Russia faces on the battlefield. It can do more to persuade Putin that this challenge will grow over time, especially by codifying its commitments to train and equip Ukraine’s armed forces over the long term. In building Ukraine’s future force, the United States must ensure that it has the right mix of tactics, technologies, and capabilities—including those that can hold strategic military targets inside Russia at risk—to be able to match or offset Russia’s battlefield advantages. In doing so, Washington can make clear to any leader in the Kremlin that invading Ukraine will invariably fail. 

It would also be in the interest of the United States to vigorously back Ukraine’s efforts to seek accountability and reparations. In the diplomatic domain, the United States should continue working with Ukraine to assemble the broadest possible coalition of global actors invested in seeking peace based on the principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter, building upon recent international gatherings in Denmark and Saudi Arabia.

The United States should not—and probably cannot— stand in the way of Ukraine’s efforts to degrade Russia’s resolve and warfighting capabilities. 

Ukraine’s asymmetric operations outside its territory are the trickiest part of this equation. Some Western officials worry that Ukraine’s audacious moves will spark escalation. But Washington would be wise to remember that Kyiv has agency in this war. Moreover, its ability to inflict pain on Russia is a net asset rather than a liability. Ukrainians understand far better than Americans and Europeans what Russia’s weaknesses are—and will exploit them relentlessly. Washington can offer its advice, making clear that Kyiv must operate according to the laws of armed conflict and choose its targets carefully. But at the end of the day, the United States should not—and probably cannot—stand in the way of Ukraine’s efforts to degrade Russia’s resolve and warfighting capabilities.

Putin will no doubt use Ukraine’s vigorous self-defense to justify Russia’s permanent war footing. But he cannot escape the fact that he has turned Russia’s most sensitive frontier into a bloody quagmire and a source of internal instability. In exploiting this vulnerability, the West should not aimlessly seek to cause Russia pain. Rather, the purpose of imposing costs is to achieve a change in an adversary’s behavior: to make Russia understand that it will be more secure once it withdraws from Ukraine and accepts its neighbor’s integration into Western security institutions. The alternative—a Ukraine unmoored, powerful, and profoundly aggrieved—will be a hazard to Russia for generations.

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