December 14, 2023

Identifying Russian Vulnerabilities and How to Leverage Them

Introduction

Russia will emerge from its war in Ukraine politically, economically, and militarily weaker than before it invaded its neighbor. Ukrainian forces are severely degrading the Russian military while Western sanctions are constricting Russia’s economy. NATO is expanding and Russian influence is declining in regions where the Kremlin has historically held political sway, such as Central Asia. Yet, while Russia will be weakened, Moscow will adapt in the face of these mounting challenges. Russia, for example, is finding ways to circumvent the sanctions and export controls that the United States and Europe have imposed, mitigating their impact. And, despite Europe’s historic transition away from Russian oil and gas and the tangible impact that the oil price cap is having on Russian government revenue, Moscow has increased sales to other countries, such as China and India. Russia may be weakened because of its war in Ukraine, but it will remain a long-term challenge—a good enough power with the ability to affect global affairs and put U.S. interests at risk.

Addressing that challenge will require the United States and Europe to build on ongoing efforts to constrict and constrain the Kremlin’s ability to sustain aggression in Ukraine and more broadly beyond Russia’s borders. It will also require a long-term and sustainable approach to lessen the impact of the tools and tactics Moscow will rely on most, which, given the degradation of its conventional forces in Ukraine, will likely heavily feature nonconventional methods, such as disinformation, sabotage, and cyberattacks, including on critical infrastructure. Strategies for addressing today’s Russia, therefore, should resemble the containment strategy first set out in the 1940s, which was designed to apply steady and forceful counterpressure to a regime whose paranoia and insecurities represented a clear danger to the West, just as the Putin regime does today.

Getting such a policy of containment right requires an understanding of Russia’s vulnerabilities and how to leverage them. The architect of containment, George F. Kennan, recognized the Soviet Union’s weaknesses and internal contradictions—vulnerabilities he argued would ultimately undo the Communist regime. The same is true today. The highly personalized, authoritarian regime Putin has constructed over the past 23 years is beset with vulnerabilities that, if subjected to steady and forceful pressure, could give way to new political leadership more amenable to constructive relations with the United States and its allies.

U.S. efforts to leverage Russian vulnerabilities should not be pursued with the goal of orchestrating regime change—that is up to Russians themselves to decide. However, the United States and its allies should make the most of Russia’s faults to help create conditions that are more conducive to reformers inside Russia working for a more liberal and less hostile nation. The United States and its allies should not shy away from actions that facilitate such political change out of fear of what comes after Putin. Political change in Russia carries risks—of violence, chaos, and internal conflict—but it also opens the possibility of a more hopeful future for Russia and for its relations with its neighbors and the West.

Strategies for addressing today’s Russia should resemble the containment strategy first set out in the 1940s, which was designed to apply steady and forceful counterpressure to a regime whose paranoia and insecurities represented a clear danger to the West, just as the Putin regime does today.

More immediately, Western efforts to exploit Russian vulnerabilities are necessary to prevent Russia from sustaining its war of aggression in Ukraine. Likewise, U.S. policy should aim to undermine Russia’s capacity to sustain aggression more broadly beyond its borders, whether by weakening its military capacity or by introducing multiple challenges the Kremlin must confront, consuming its bandwidth to sustain its malign activities. Additionally, efforts to target Russia’s vulnerabilities can aid in U.S. efforts to grow the coalition of countries willing and able to oppose Russian aggression, including by weakening Russian influence with its long-standing partners.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly exposed many of Russia’s vulnerabilities. Russia’s botched planning and the poor showing of its military in Ukraine, for example, demonstrated the vulnerabilities that come with the personalization of power. Putin’s decision to surround himself with yes-men and loyalists led him to severely miscalculate not just in his decision to invade Ukraine but in his understanding of how the conflict would transpire and the faulty planning that followed. Likewise, the failed insurgency led by Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin in June 2023 exposed the vulnerability that the Kremlin itself created by relying too heavily on a private military company. By allowing an alternate center of power to develop—one with access to weapons—Putin planted the seeds of the most significant challenge to his power he has faced since entering office in 2000. Although the Kremlin may have neutralized the immediate threat, including through its likely assassination of Prigozhin, the entire episode exposed weaknesses that may eventually catch up with the regime.

This essay series identifies 10 of the most critical vulnerabilities in today’s Russia across the defense, economic, and diplomatic and political domains. Some of these vulnerabilities, such as Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports or the exodus of many of the smartest and most talented Russians, are long-standing but have been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Other vulnerabilities that the essays identify have been created by the war, such as Ukraine’s ability to impose costs on Russia for the foreseeable future or the challenge that Russian diplomats now face in international organizations. Russia has many vulnerabilities that are not included in this series, such as the Wagner example previously discussed or its dismal demographic outlook. They represent key weaknesses in the Russian state and its government, but there are few actionable opportunities for the United States and Europe to leverage the vulnerabilities. This essay series focuses on 10 of the most critical vulnerabilities inside Russia that the United States and its partners can exploit.

In the defense domain:

In the economic domain:

In the diplomatic and political domains:

  • Ukraine’s growing ability to impose costs on Russia—on the battlefield; through asymmetric means; and in diplomatic, cultural, and legal spheres—will pose a significant long-term vulnerability for Russia;
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine has alienated broad swathes of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, causing some of Russia’s closest allies to start putting distance between themselves and Moscow. Russia’s unexpectedly subpar military performance in Ukraine and distraction from other regional crises is pushing Russia’s neighbors to look elsewhere for diplomatic and security partners;
  • Putin’s war in Ukraine has sapped the strength and vitality of Russian diplomacy, undermining a traditional strength and making it vulnerable to pressure that will make it harder for Moscow to punch above its geopolitical weight for the foreseeable future;
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine creates new domestic challenges for Putin and his longtime ability to maintain high levels of public support. Autocrats who lose popular support not only find it harder to govern, but they are also at greater risk of mass protest or an elite coup;
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine prompted another major exodus of Russians, including the country’s best and brightest. While the escape of opposition-minded groups is generally beneficial to the Kremlin because it avoids a buildup of pressure on the regime, for the West, Russian exiles can serve as a conduit of information back into Russia, a talent pool, and an opportunity to invest in a better relationship with a future Russia.

For too long, the United States has been on the back foot in its confrontation with Russia. These essays provide a roadmap for a more assertive Western posture.

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Authors

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

  • Richard Connolly

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Dr Richard Connolly is director of the consultancy, Eastern Advisory Group, and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. He was previously ...

  • Siemon Wezeman

    Senior Researcher, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

    Siemon Wezeman is a Senior Researcher in the Arms Transfers Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and a contributing author at CNAS....

  • Gavin Wilde

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    Gavin Wilde is a Senior Fellow for the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a contributing author at CNAS....

  • Elina Ribakova

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, and Security Program

    Elina Ribakova is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program and has been a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for Interna...

  • Benjamin Hilgenstock

    Senior Economist, KSE Institute at the Kyiv School of Economics

    Benjamin Hilgen stock is a Senior Economist for the KSE Institute at the Kyiv School of Economics, and a contributing author at CNAS....

  • Edward Fishman

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program

    Edward Fishman is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he focuses on the intersection of business, economics, and national security. His r...

  • Eric Ciaramella

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    Eric Ciaramella is a Senior Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a contributing author at CNAS....

  • Paul Stronski

    Adjunct Associate Professor, Georgetown University

    Paul Stronski is an Adjunct Associate Professor for the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, and a contributing author at CNAS....

  • Peter Schroeder

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Peter Schroeder is an expert on Russian foreign and security policy, with nearly two decades of experience working on Russia and Eurasia in various roles in the Intelligence C...

  • Timothy Frye

    Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy, Columbia University

    Timothy Frye (PhD, Columbia, 1997) is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University, and a contributing author at CNAS....

  • Maria Snegovaya

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Maria Snegovaya (Ph.D., Columbia University) is a former adjunct senior fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She also serves as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Polit...

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