A man carries brushwood for a wood stove to an apartment house basement used as a bomb shelter in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Thursday. People have been living in the basement for months hiding from the Russian shelling and rocket attacks. AP Photo/LIBKOS

As 2022, doubtless the worst year for Russia this century and likely the worst since Josef Stalin’s rule, clatters to a bloody close, many will claim that Vladimir Putin achieved nothing with the most momentous decision of his life — to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Yet, almost ten months after this disastrous adventure began, it is beginning to serve a useful purpose for Russia the country, if not for the regime: Slowly but surely, it is destroying the illusions on which Putin’s dictatorship has been built.

The conventional balance of gains and losses is hardly in favor of Russia — notwithstanding repeated representations to the contrary by Putin and his clique.

In early September — just after Russia suffered the biggest defeat of the campaign, having been forced to retreat from the Kharkiv region — Putin insisted: “We haven’t lost anything and we will not lose anything. From the point of view of gains I can say that the biggest gain is the strengthening of our nation’s sovereignty.” That’s an overgenerous assessment by any reckoning, even one that cynically ignores the tens of thousands of deaths and the kind of devastation and human suffering that Europe has rarely witnessed since the Second World War.

For my part, after almost a year of living this war and feeling it in my bones every day, even from afar, I still cannot come to terms with the deaths of people I knew, the ripping pain of dislocation, the horror my country has wrought on a nation more closely related to Russia than almost any other. Yet I have learned through hard experience that the kind of cold-blooded assessment needed to chart the war’s course, much less to assess its ultimate outcome, leaves little room for emotions, and the attempt to banish them has the added benefit of enabling me to keep breathing despite the ever-present lump in my chest.

So let us proceed on that basis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, left, visit the Crimean Bridge connecting Russian mainland and Crimean peninsula over the Kerch Strait, which was damaged by a truck bomb attack in October, after restoration works, not far from Kerch, Crimea, Monday, Dec. 5. Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

On the gain side, Putin managed to expand the Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia from some 42,000 square kilometers in 2014 to some 87,000 square kilometers, or 14% of the country’s total area. The ravaged strip of land Russia has won constitutes a “land bridge” to the previously occupied Crimean Peninsula; the occupation restored Crimea’s water supply, previously cut off by Ukraine, and created an alternative supply route to the Kerch Strait bridge.


Geopolitically, the adventure allowed Russia’s ruling elite to shake off its laziness and turn decisively toward the global east and south: Finding trading and political partners there is no longer an option — it’s a necessity. The blossoming relationship with Iran is a questionable gain, but even Putin’s military defeats have not turned China, India and Brazil decisively against Russia. Their leaders’ irritation with Putin has been evident at times — yet they’re still willing to cut him some slack for his attempted disruption of U.S. hegemony. Just listen to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the newly-elected president of Brazil, lay equal blame for the Ukraine war at the door of the U.S. and its NATO allies.

That forbearance has helped the Russian economy survive the worst Western sanctions in history. In the first half of the year, the Russian current account surplus hit a record high of $146 billion as energy exports continued at high prices and imports only dropped 6.7%; the Russian budget, passed recently for the next three years, assumes oil and gas revenues at pre-war levels despite the near-cessation of gas exports to Europe and the price ceiling imposed by the European Union on Russian oil. The country can still sell to Asia, and while the reorientation is painful, it’s ultimately feasible — as is Europe’s switch to different suppliers.

One could also argue that a big nation like Russia should not be as import-dependent for high-tech components, and for industrial goods in general, as it has been for the last 30 years. As often before, defense producers will lead the way in rebuilding some of the country’s industrial capacity: These days, Ukraine is increasingly hit with newly made cruise missiles that are still being manufactured despite the sanctions. The Russian economy’s well-known resilience has been tested again — and, despite high levels of strain, no serious economists are predicting an imminent collapse. That is a non-loss and thus a gain.

On the loss side, the list is longer and scarier — again, even without contemplating the human tragedies, the deaths, the devastation.

The currently occupied area is only slightly more than half of what Russia held by mid-summer — 161,000 square kilometers at the peak. As Russia retreated from Northern Ukraine, from the Kyiv suburbs, from strategically important towns near Kharkiv and finally from the southern city of Kherson, it squandered whatever trust Russia enjoyed among the Russian-speaking people of Eastern and Southern Ukraine by pulling back with little regard for the collaborators’ future. As a consequence, holding more territory will only be easy if it’s depopulated. Eastern and Southern Ukraine have been lost to Russian influence for decades to come as Russian speakers switch consciously to Ukrainian: There’s nothing Russia can give them, and lots that it can still take.

Equally lost is Europe as a political and economic partner. Its energy markets, gained at great effort and expense by the Soviet Union and used since the 1970s as Russia’s most reliable source of foreign exchange, are lost for the foreseeable future, perhaps for good, and Russia is now at the mercy of Asian markets. The same can be said of technology access, educational opportunities, cultural exchanges — the double-headed Russian eagle has lost its European head.


Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrives for the EU-Western Balkans Summit, in Tirana, Albania, Tuesday, Dec. 6. EU leaders and their Western Balkans counterparts gathered for talks aimed at boosting their partnership as Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to reshape the geopolitical balance in the region. AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru

Kremlin bets on Europe’s energy dependence and thus its putative malleability have failed. Pro-Russian protests, even in countries with relatively Russia-friendly populations, such as Germany and Italy, have been negligible despite rising energy costs, and no Western country has elected even a relatively pro-Russian government; even Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, a representative of the once reliably pro-Putin right, has not wavered from her staunch support of Ukraine. As for Russia’s immediate neighbors in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, they are more anti-Russian now than ever before, with even anti-Putin citizens denied transit and short-stay visas and subject to much bureaucratic humiliation and suspicion.

Even if one accepts Putin’s cavalier attitude to the economic side of things, the loss of Europe — with the sole exception of Hungary — is a major security issue for Russia. Nordic neighbors Sweden and Finland have dropped their misgivings about joining NATO, and formerly pacifist partners, such as Germany and France, have made an about-face and started pumping tens of billions of euros into defense against potential Russian aggression.

Military aid to Ukraine has prompted Moscow’s former satellite countries to shed their Soviet-made arsenals, and Western European defense industries are swelling with orders to rearm them with more modern weapons. As a result, NATO’s military potential is growing as members of the alliance test state-of-the-art weaponry in Ukraine before their own militaries adopt it (Germany’s IRIS-T air defense systems are one important example).

It’s expensive to have a committed Europe as an enemy — and generally expensive to switch the economy to a war mode. Russia’s 2022 military spending, at 4.7 trillion rubles ($75 billion), is more than 50% bigger than in 2020, and is also 1.2 trillion rubles over budget. In 2023, both the military outlay and security expenditure — which includes policing the conquered territories — are meant to grow even further, the latter increasing 50% in next year’s budget. In total, Russia will be spending almost $160 billion a year on defense and security — a growing burden on an economy that will shrink 3.6% this year and 3% next year, according to the Bloomberg consensus forecast. Ordinary Russians are being dealt a pretty hopeless hand: Their standard of living can only deteriorate as their country continues to militarize at the expense of much-needed development.

It’s hard at this point to imagine an accounting exercise, even a fanciful, ideologically colored one, that would make the Ukraine adventure look worthwhile — and that’s just given the status quo, not the very real prospect of a military defeat that would minimize or nullify the few existing gains as well as destroy Russia’s remaining prestige in the non-Western world.

There is, however, one development that doesn’t fit on either side of a conventional ledger of gains and losses, because it’s a time bomb under the Putin regime but a potential boon for Russia, especially should it lose the war: the end of the regime’s foundational lies.


Recruits hold their weapons during a military training at a firing range in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia in October. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his mobilization on Sept. 21 for the war in Ukraine, independent media, human rights activists and draftees themselves have painted a bleak picture of a haphazard, chaotic and ethnically biased effort to round up as many men as possible and push them quickly to the front, regardless of skill or training. AP Photo/File

Even though Putin has taken steps to crush independent media, truth is increasingly finding its way even to those who never sought it. The readership of pro-war Telegram channels, many of which do not skimp on the harsh realities of war as they build up a Russian version of a stab-in-the-back theory, has swollen to millions since the invasion began, and especially since last fall’s mobilization. The channels’ grim reporting amplifies what more and more Russians hear about the real situation on the ground from their mobilized friends and relatives.

Since its first days, the Putin regime promised prosperity rather than ideologically-motivated belt-tightening — whatever was left of that lie evaporated with the announcement of mobilization. For years, the regime has bragged about its ultramodern military, but what people actually see is an army incapable of the most basic organization and logistics. They have heard about hypersonic missiles, but they know their friends are going into battle with cheap, Chinese-made commercial radios. They have been fed tall tales about Russia’s awe-inspiring, nuke-equipped strategic aviation, but they see successful drone and sabotage attacks on this fearsome air force’s airfields, often hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border. They have been promised the world, but the only foreign destinations increasingly open to them are the waterlogged trenches near some burned-out Ukrainian village. They have been fed a story of Russia standing up to the U.S. and NATO as an equal, but they see Ukrainians beating the Russian forces alone, with NATO weapons but no foreign armies helping them on the ground.

The worst thing about all the reality checks is the shocking realization that Putin and the men around him may have actually believed their boasts and tall tales — and that’s how they got themselves and the entire country into this mess.

Russians have always been slow to accept the truth about their leaders and even slower to act on it. But the longer the war drags on in its plodding, hopeless way with no obvious upside, the likelier that Russians will eventually choose the truth over the debunked lies. They may still draw the wrong conclusion from that uncomfortable truth and decide, in the short term, that nationalist ideologists at the top are preferable to liars and thieves. But once a people get out of the habit of lying to themselves, the killing must eventually stop making sense — in the end, it’s the lies that kill.

That’s the hope to which I cling as Russia ends this nightmarish year far deeper in the wrong than it started it, and knee deep in blood.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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