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How long can Russia fight a war in Ukraine?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has analysts wondering how long it could last, but Putin has been preparing the Russian economy for some time.

Ukrainian serviceman stands at a captured Russian tank in the north of the Kharkiv region.
Irina Rybakova, Press service of the Ukrainian Ground ForcesReuters

It's just over a week into the war in Ukraine, and the Russian invaders are making slow, but sure, gains against their neighbour. Cities like Kherson and Melitopol in the south have been captured, while major population centres like Kharkiv and Mariupol are under siege with little hope of relief. The capital, Kyiv, is braced for a likely assault with thousands of citizens armed and ready to defend their homes.

Across the headlines in the last few days has been the Russian convoy that has been rolling towards Kyiv. However, despite being three dozen miles from the city a few days ago, has yet to reach its target. The drive isn't long, which begs the question: how has the convoy not reached the city? The answer could point to how Russia has prepared for the conflict, and potential deficiencies in otherwise thorough planning stretching back years.

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How has Russia stockpiled in preparation the war?

Massive sanctions have been levied against the Russian state, preventing members of Putin's circle from accessing money abroad, while Russian oligarchs are having yachts and assets seized in Europe. But it is unlikely this would have come as any major surprise to the Russians in the event of war. Indeed, evidence has emerged of a sustained plan from Moscow to wean themselves off of foreign reliance for years.

Two important markers of this are the Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves. Having a high number of both would be important in wartime and under sanctions, as both can be used to purchase imports if the currency, the rouble, collapsed. As expected, the rouble fell to its lowest value against the dollar, hitting its lowest value on record on March 2 of 110 roubles to 1 dollar.

While this is causing rapid inflation inside Russia, the reserves of other currency means that externally Russia can still do business. In 2018, Russia stored $447.7 billion of combined foreign and gold reserves. Four years later, this number has swelled to $630.2 billion, a 40.7 percent increase.

So while sanctions bite, Russia has a lot of flexibility in terms of trade, at least for a period of time. Jörg Krämer, the chief economist at the German Commerzbank, said the amount would enable Russia to "pay for all imports for a year" without needing to export anything.

Large stockpiles of foreign reserves just are very useful for helping to insulate yourself from global economic shocks,” Emma Ashford, a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, told Marketplace.

But while the economy may be as prepared as possible, there is evidence to suggest the same cannot be said for the armed forces. This Twitter thread, from a user who claims to have been a part of the US Department of Defence, shared his views on why the Russian military hardware may not be up to scratch.

Videos circulating social media show dozens of abandoned trucks and tanks, either lacking fuel or, as Trent Telenko puts it, were "not exercised for a year," leading to tyre wall failures when operated. This is because sun degrades the tyres of certain military vehicles due to the composition of said tyres. Failure to keep vehicles maintained and exercised leads to the same are of tyre exposed to the sun, perishing it.

This could point to why the convoy has been moving so slowly towards Kyiv. As the risk of tyre failure is high, likely because military men lying to superiors about readiness, the vehicles cannot be risked off road. Thus, advance is slow as the trucks can only be three abreast. A perfect ambush opportunity for the Ukrainian army.

While the economy is prepared, deficiencies in the Russian government and military hierarchy has led to a situation where vehicles can't be maintained in combat, a serious failure for an advancing army.

As long as Russia can keep their soldiers fighting, and the people at home as comfortable as possible, then the war could last a considerable time. Protests have already taken place in Russia with thousands arrested; if economic instability was to continue then these could be expected to grow larger, further endangering the war effort.

What does Russia want in negotiations?

Another factor which will determine the length of the war is what Russia demands from Ukraine. It has already denied a ceasefire without a Ukrainian surrender, something which at this stage seems very unlikely.

This handout video grab taken and released by the Ukraine Presidency press service on March 4, 2022 shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivering an address in Kyiv.
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This handout video grab taken and released by the Ukraine Presidency press service on March 4, 2022 shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivering an address in Kyiv.Ukraine PresidencyAFP

There are issues where it’s needed to find compromise, so people don’t die, and there are issues where there can be no compromise. Well, we cannot just say, ‘here it is, it’s your country now, Ukraine is part of Russia.’ This is just impossible. So why suggest it?

Volodymr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine

In that quote there is it can be inferred that Russia has been demanding territory from Ukraine at the early talks. Again, no surprise as Russia has claimed it is defending the two breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk; before the war neither were in full control of what had been two Ukrainian provinces. This is a red line for President Zelenskyy. So far, there have been two meetings, but nothing has been fully negotiated at this stage.

Russia claimed in its declaration of war that it was seeking to de-nazify and demilitarise Ukraine. What this means while Ukraine has a Jewish president is anyone's guess, but would mean that any demands would almost certainly include provisions to prevent Ukraine ever joining NATO.

In an article published last year, President Putin described Russia and Ukraine as one nation, with Ukraine being part of a historical Russia. This would go some way to say that some territory would be demanded by Russia, at least the two breakaway republics but likely much more. Unconfirmed intelligence reports suggest Ukraine could be split in half on the Dniepr river.

Of course, what can be demanded by Russia depends upon their success on the battlefield. While their advance has not been as fast as some suggested, they are making progress. But the longer the war drags on, the weaker their negotiating stance.

But until the conflict gets to stage where both sides can get around a table for serious negotiations, then Russian demands are just speculation.