Does Vladimir Putin Care What the War Has Cost Him?

Putin’s indifference to the short-term costs of war and his overestimation of Russia’s military power may ultimately threaten his long-term interests, writes Alexandra Vacroux in Barron’s.

Much ink—and blood—has been spilled on trying to figure out what Russian President Vladimir Putin is thinking. Given that only he and his tight inner circle know for sure, this may be a fool’s errand. But we do have clues to what Putin does and does not care about. Parsing those clues reveals that while Putin may now appear indifferent to the immediate effects of the war at home, the longer term impacts are going to hit him where it hurts.

What Putin doesn’t care about

He doesn’t care how much this war has cost Russia so far. The number of casualties does not register in Russia the same way it does in the United States. For one thing, the numbers of Russian soldiers killed have not been made public by the Russian state. Russian army culture does not embrace the “leave no comrade behind” ethos of the U.S. military, so the state may not even know exactly how many soldiers have been lost. The numbers may be over 20,000 if the Ukrainian Defense Ministry is to be believed. Families of some men killed in Ukraine have been contacted privately; many have been told to keep the funerals quiet. 

The scale of soldiers killed or injured will eventually get out, but possibly not for years. Until then, the reminder that the Soviet Union lost over 25 million citizens in World War II puts the current losses in perspective for a population that is being served a daily diet of propaganda about the “special operation in Ukraine” being another case of Russian good vs Nazi evil.  

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Executive Director

Alexandra Vacroux is executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.