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How six more years under Putin will shape the war in Ukraine

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Vladimir Putin has been in power for a quarter-century in Russia, and yesterday's election results confirm that he will reign for a fifth term. Putin's hold on the Kremlin gives him control of the world's largest nuclear arsenal and a military that's been at war in Ukraine for more than two years ever since he launched an invasion in February 2022. That war has killed or wounded hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. But despite those losses, the Russian military is pressing forward, and Ukraine is facing the stark prospect of a fight in which key U.S. military assistance is in question. So what will six more years of Vladimir Putin mean for the war in Ukraine? And where do both militaries stand at this point in that brutal war? Dara Massicot is a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DARA MASSICOT: Thanks for having me on the show.

PFEIFFER: Dara, a big-picture question to start. I'm wondering how much of an impact Putin's reelection could have on how Russia proceeds now in this war, if there may be any notable changes in direction or strategy or aggression. What's your sense of that?

MASSICOT: I think that his concerns are the same now as before the election. He is primarily motivated by managing this war and succeeding without overheating his own economy or agitating his own population. I think we're going to see him continue along the same lines of getting men into service with volunteer methods and not mobilizing them because that's a political risk. But, of course, there is another course that he could take if he chose to.

PFEIFFER: Meaning conscription.

MASSICOT: Yes. Yes, that would be another round of mobilization. But I think he would only do this if he wanted to initiate another large offensive against Ukraine. And right now I don't see them taking those steps.

PFEIFFER: You know that most experts expected Russia's victory in Ukraine to be pretty swift. They didn't expect that Russia would need to be rebuilding its military more than two years after the invasion. If you had to describe overall the state of the Russian military right now, how would you?

MASSICOT: Well, I would say that the Russian army that we're looking at two years into the war is very different quantitatively and qualitatively than what they began with. They've lost 14,000 pieces of equipment - estimates range wildly, but hundreds of thousands of casualties since the beginning of this war. So we're seeing older vehicles that are Soviet origin that they're pulling out of Siberia. And we're seeing volunteers that they've either pulled in through various methods, recruited from the prison system or recruited fresh off the street with no military background. So it is a mobilization-based army. The same thing could be said for the Ukrainian side as well. But this is a damaged organization, and yet parts of it are learning and becoming lethal. So it is a mixed picture, which is why I think that even though Russia has a lot of advantages on the ground and in the skies, they are still not able to translate those advantages into really decisive gains for now.

PFEIFFER: Besides reaching into warehouses and bringing out old Soviet equipment, as you said, are they also getting newer equipment from other countries?

MASSICOT: They are. They are. So they - I probably would highlight two very important features of their aid that they're getting from abroad. No. 1 is the Shahed drones that they've purchased from Iran and now they are manufacturing inside Russia. The second type of equipment that's been very important for Russia has been the artillery that they've been able to purchase from North Korea and, to a lesser extent, from Iran. There's also some additional support that does matter, whether that's ballistic missiles from North Korea or the type of support that China is providing them that is not necessarily quite so obvious, but they are contributing to the Russian war effort.

PFEIFFER: The U.S. is a potential factor here because if Donald Trump is reelected and goes back to the White House, he might stop substantial aid to Ukraine. And Putin, as a result, may not have to call up a large number of troops. How much do you think that possibility is part of Putin's calculus?

MASSICOT: I think it's a large part. I mean, if you look at this dynamic from the perspective of how the Russian military general staff looks at things, they're looking at Ukraine, thinking they are short on critical ammunition. They are also delaying mobilization decisions. So that means their units on the frontline, at least for right now, are vulnerable. They're looking at the delays in Congress. And they're also thinking long-term. You know, what happens after November to the United States? And if the United States support from Ukraine falls away, what will that do to European aid? And all of these things to a Russian military planner look incredibly positive. And they have a lot of incentives from that perspective to move forward and continue to attack Ukrainian positions before these issues get resolved.

PFEIFFER: Based on everything you take into account of what may play out in 2024, how do you expect this year to end up for Russia and Ukraine? Could this be an end? Do you expect it to drag on?

MASSICOT: Well, this year is going to be decisive. The challenge for me in terms of forecasting how it will look on the battlefield is so much - is contingent on whether or not the supplemental gets passed here in the United States for 61 billion, which is mostly going to be converted into lethal aid for Ukraine. If that money is approved and those weapons and ammunition do begin flowing quickly to Ukraine, there is a very good possibility that next year is going to look better for Ukraine because they can hold off Russian attacks now and rebuild and modify the force moving forward when Russia's advantages start to erode in 2025 and 2026.

However, the flipside of this is if the aid is not approved, then we are going to see a process, which is already underway, of Ukrainian units that are rationing their ammunition. That could give way to true depletion of ammunition. And if that happens, whether that's on the ground or in the skies, Ukrainian units are not going to be able to protect themselves. And we're going to start to think about what a Russian breakthrough would look like later on in the second half of this year if that supplemental doesn't go through.

PFEIFFER: So when you said that this year will be decisive, you don't necessarily mean the war will end. It will just really pave the way for who comes out of this year stronger.

MASSICOT: Correct, correct.

PFEIFFER: That's Dara Massicot of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you.

MASSICOT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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