An Economist Takes Over in Russia — Assume a Howitzer

If Putin’s choice of Alexey Belousov to run the Kremlin’s war effort reflects a decision to prepare Russia for a long war of attrition, it suggests a calculation that he can outlast America’s support for Ukraine’s freedom.

Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
President Putin's choice for defense minister, Andrei Belousov, in 2022 at Bangkok. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

President Putin’s choice of an economist to run Russia’s defense ministry reminds us of the old saw about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist stranded on a desert island. They have a can of food but no tools. The physicist and the chemist commence figuring out how to open the blasted can. Says the economist: “Assume we have a can opener.” The jape skewers economists’s all-too-frequent detachment from reality. Mr. Putin looks to be avoiding that error.

Know thy enemy, we say. For this wouldn’t be the first time America dipped its toe into a war of attrition. Boasted President Biden: We’ll keep supplying Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” We went into Vietnam in what we’d hoped would be a short war (though it had been festering since World War II). It turned out to be a campaign of attrition. Under pressure from a left-wing peace movement, Democrats in Congress threw in the olive-drab towel.

More recently, Mr. Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban signaled, to America’s allies as well as its foes, that its commitments are subject to revocation when the going gets tough. Mr. Putin is no doubt aware of that history. If the Russian strongman’s choice of Andrei Belousov to run the Kremlin’s war effort reflects a decision to prepare Russia for a long war of attrition, it suggests a calculation that he can outlast America’s support for Ukraine’s freedom.

Certainly, Mr. Putin’s gamble that Russia could survive the West’s sanctions regime — billed as the toughest ever in modern history — appears to be paying off. Far from crumpling, Russia’s economy in 2023 expanded at a faster clip — 3.6 percent — than America’s growth of 2.5 percent, per the IMF. That’s no way to win a war. The Kyiv School of Economics’ Elina Ribakova ties Russia’s growth to its “increasingly structural militarization.”

That, Ms. Ribakova contends, “complicates any efforts to end the war in Ukraine” and could lead Mr. Putin “to double down on militarization and seek further confrontation.” Enter Mr. Belousov. As our James Brooke reports, the economist’s accession as defense minister comes as Mr. Putin is muttering about the need “to develop the defense-industrial complex” and “the scientific, technological, and industrial potential of the country.”

Mr. Belousov has no military training, as Mr. Brooke marks. His role, it appears, will largely center on ensuring Russia has the resources needed to fuel the Kremlin’s military machine as it moves forward — if slowly, though seemingly inexorably — against an increasingly weary Ukrainian army. No wonder that Ukraine is already pushing back against suggestions that it seek a negotiated peace with the Kremlin, even ceding some territory in the process.

Such appeasement would be a “big mistake,” says Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yushchenko. Any compromise settlement to end the war would only embolden the Russian tyrant, he contends. A truce of that ilk would “give Putin five or seven years to get stronger and then start this misery again.” Mr. Yushchenko has no patience for “war fatigue” and decried the political dithering that delayed American war aid. “Every day we pay with our lives,” he avers. 

Could all this backing eventually strain America’s finances? Russia’s debt is less than 20 percent of its GDP. America’s stands at 97 percent. Even if the size of Russia’s economy is a fraction of America’s, it’s a reminder of historian A.J.P. Taylor’s observation that the economic test of “being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War,” even as “the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one.”


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