Earlier today, Timothy Snyder (author of “Bloodlands”) wrote; My concerns about the Russian invasion of Ukraine are the prevention of genocide and the defense of democracy. But those who think first of U.S. interests should acknowledge what Ukrainians are doing for American security. The least we can do is be on our own side.
As the United States and its allies cope with the current Putin regime and think about what might eventually follow it, they would do well to remember the adage that Russia is never as strong as it looks or as weak as it looks.
In turn, we should ad that national leaders who are losing wars sometimes resort to desperate gambles. Defeat or lack of victory might threaten their hold on power, and they are sometimes willing to take daring or outside-the-box moves to try to turn things around. This is the great fear about the war in Ukraine: if Russian President Vladimir Putin judges that his back is up against the wall, he may decide to take catastrophic action.
If he does so, he certainly has some nasty tools he could use. In the weeks since Ukraine’s dramatic September offensive, Putin has already demonstrated his willingness to order conventional air and missile strikes against civilian targets, including population centers and power-grid infrastructure in many parts of Ukraine. Russian forces could renew attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, risking the release of nuclear radiation. More darkly, one cannot rule out the possibility that he might deploy chemical or biological weapons against Ukrainian targets, as his Soviet predecessors did in their war in Afghanistan. Given the moral backlash ensuing, some might assume that Moscow would be deterred from such action. But it is also possible that Putin might be encouraged by the relatively lackluster U.S. responses to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war and Russia’s use of a nerve agent against Russian defectors living in Britain in 2018.
Putin’s repeated mention of nuclear weapons is even more concerning to many observers. As a nuclear-armed state, Russia could conceivably use a tactical nuclear bomb in an all-out effort to shift the war’s course. Although the reprisals for such an attack would likely be devastating, observers may wonder if Putin could decide he has nothing to lose. On October 27, Putin declared, “There is no point in [using nuclear weapons], neither political nor military,” but his previous comments have been none too reassuring. Will he stay away from the nuclear option even if he gets more desperate?
The good news is that history suggests that Putin is unlikely to fulfill the West’s worst fears. Some leaders in losing wars have taken dramatic actions to stave off defeat. But often, they have decided against the most drastic options for political or strategic reasons. Like other leaders before him, Putin will consider whether his actions might help him win. He may be reluctant to contemplate moves that could expose Russia to even greater losses or undermine his rule at home. Of course, there are still reasons to worry about a desperate Putin. But by examining how leaders tend to behave in these situations, the United States, its partners, and allies can arrive at a more considered assessment of Putin’s threats and frame their policies accordingly.
Desperate, Not Foolhardy
The situation that Putin now finds himself in is hardly new. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many leaders fighting losing wars have somehow attempted to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Occasionally, these risky moves succeed, such as the United States’ wild gamble during the Korean War to undertake the Inchon amphibious landing, in which General Douglas MacArthur launched a surprise after weeks of North Korean advances attack a fortified site behind enemy lines, achieving a decisive victory. Often, however, these moves fail: consider Germany’s decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic in January 1917, drawing the United States into World War I and ensuring Germany’s ultimate defeat.
Two things are clear about these military gambles. First, they are usually built upon a theory of victory. States will engage in such a move only if there is a logic by which it might turn the war around. In ordering Germany’s last-gasp offensive in the Ardennes region of Belgium in December 1944, Adolf Hitler hoped to shatter the American line and force U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to consider peace talks. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missile attacks on Israeli cities during the 1990–1991 Gulf War were intended to split Arab states from the UN coalition. Neither of these leaders, of course, obtained their desired objective, but in both cases, there was at least a larger plan in play.
Second, just because a war is going badly does not mean everything is on the table. Despite being backed into a corner, leaders may rule out some options. They may be wary of a move that might incur outsized strategic costs, even if it might turn the tide on the battlefield. In the Korean War, for example, China’s November 1950 intervention posed grave risks to the U.S. military position there. Yet the Truman administration ruled out direct attacks on Chinese territory because the risks of escalation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union were too high.
In other cases, a leader may dismiss some options for fear of political backlash. Even a ruthless autocrat may recognize the diplomatic costs of some military measures. This does not mean that leaders stay away from all nasty behavior, but there are some places they are unwilling to go, even in desperate times. Take nuclear weapons. Since 1945, there have been several cases in which nuclear-armed belligerents have lost or stalled conventional wars against non-nuclear adversaries. Yet they have invariably elected to keep their nuclear weapons holstered. The United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan, France in its insurgency war in Algeria, China in its battles with Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s: all failed to accomplish their military goals with conventional means, yet none of them resorted to nuclear weapons.
Moral considerations sometimes constrain even heinous regimes. Consider Imperial Japan during World War II, one of history’s most genocidal regimes. In 1945, as defeat appeared inevitable, the Japanese considered launching an extraordinary biological weapons attack against California, dispersing fleas infected with bubonic plague and other diseases from seaplanes. The operation was eventually called off by the Japanese chief of general staff—partly, he said, because though Japan had used biological weapons against China earlier in the war, by using them against the United States, “Japan will earn the derision of the world.”
We also suggested that the US dropping two atomic bombs was unnecessary either.”
Given this general pattern of restraint, what factors might shape Putin’s thinking should Russian military setbacks continue to pile up? The Russian leader’s calculations are framed because he has staked so much on the war. He fears the absence of victory, meaning the lack of significant concessions by the Ukrainian government. He has gone all in, describing the “special operation” as essential to protect Russia from NATO, neutralize the “Nazi” threat posed by Ukraine, and for Russia to realize its true Novorossiya identity and borders. And like most dictators, he has also made concerted efforts to solidify his grip on power even as the war has unfolded.
Despite these steps, the Russian war effort is floundering, and the Russian population has begun to question the war. Some have publicly expressed outrage over the war’s mismanagement, including pro-Russian bloggers, the head of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, local political leaders within Russia, and members of the Russian media. Within Russian society, discontent seems to be growing, as shown by the decision of nearly 300,000 Russian men to flee the country to evade the recently expanded draft. Antiwar protests continue to occur, including from the difficult-to-silence families of dead Russian soldiers, despite widespread arrests and crackdowns. And the internet is flooded with stories of new conscripts being sent into battle without proper training or equipment.
Putin in Red Square, Moscow, November 2022
As we suggested, the war, the logic goes, will sap public support for the Kremlin as losses mount and sanctions destroy the Russian economy. if Russia fails in Ukraine, it could pose a real threat to Putin’s hold on power. While a coup is unlikely, a meltdown of the regime is more plausible, as multiple challenges overwhelm its capacity to react and dysfunction drains confidence in Putin’s leadership. Another possibility is in the mode of Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 or Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. In this situation, elites would privately approach Putin and tell him it is time for him to go, without public protest or his arrest—although Putin’s narcissism and megalomania might cause him to view even this managed exit as unacceptable. With the future of his power at stake, Putin might have added incentives to pursue more significant pain and destruction in Ukraine. For example, as Russia has done in recent weeks, by escalating civilian suffering, Putin may hope to push Kyiv to make concessions. Nevertheless, a desperate Putin, much like his counterparts in earlier losing wars, is unlikely to pursue the most drastic options.
The darkest nightmare of Ukraine and its Western allies is a Russian decision to launch nuclear attacks. But consider the factors that Putin would need to weigh in making this choice. First, it is crucial to note how completely out-of-bounds such a move would be. Since 1945, states have engaged in an array of horrifying tactics, using chemical and biological weapons, massacring civilians, and engaging in mass sexual assault. Yet they have never used nuclear weapons. U.S. President Joe Biden and his NATO allies have repeatedly stated that this is a bright-red line that Moscow must not cross.
Putin’s growing isolation and hardening autocracy do not mean that he views using nuclear weapons as acceptable. It is true that in recent years, Putin has taken large steps to sever his ties with the West and has loudly declared his indifference to Western disapproval of his tightening grip on Russian society, his backing of the Assad government in Syria, his meddling in Western elections, his invasion of Ukraine, and everything else. But nuclear first use would be an action of a different order. It is the one thing that might cause the entire world, including critical Russian allies such as Saudi Arabia and China, to back away from Russia and withdraw support for Moscow. There would likely be backlash within Russia, too, especially if Russian nuclear first use occurred without direct NATO involvement in the war. One June poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 38 percent of Russians are “terrified” over Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons.
Disapproval aside, using a nuclear weapon could open doors that Putin would prefer to leave closed. NATO troops or airpower might become directly involved in Ukraine. And, of course, there is the possibility that NATO could respond in kind, something Russia does not want, especially given the United States’ superior arsenal. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are not particularly useful as tools of warfare in that they are ill-suited for conquering territory. They would either destroy or irradiate any assets that Russia hopes to conquer. And using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, of course, runs the risk of causing radioactive fallout to Russia itself. Notably, the 1986 nuclear plant accident in Chornobyl, Ukraine, which released a far smaller amount of radiation than a nuclear weapon blast, produced radioactive fallout that drifted over Russia and likely caused some of the same health effects in the Russian population—such as increased rate of thyroid cancer—that it did among Ukrainians.
Moreover, Ukraine does not have obvious military targets for nuclear attacks, such as nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers. The country’s military strength is built on thousands of brave fighters distributed across hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of territory, often deployed close to Russian troops. Limited nuclear attacks on Ukrainian forces would not heavily damage Ukrainian military strength. Retired Russian generals have pointed out that nuclear weapons have little utility, especially since conventional weapons can now accomplish many of Russia’s most significant military aims, such as damaging Ukrainian infrastructure. In October, the Ukrainian government expressed concern that Russia might destroy the gigantic Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine, but with conventional explosives.
There is, of course, the possibility that Putin could use nuclear weapons against Ukrainian population centers to break the Ukrainian will to resist. Such attacks might seem more strategic, even though history shows that bombing civilians rarely cause the target country to make significant concessions. And using nuclear weapons to kill a huge number of people rather than to achieve some military objective would incur overwhelming global wrath.
Along with a nuclear strike, the other desperate move the West fears most is a direct Russian attack—even nonnuclear—on NATO member states. Given the current situation and Biden’s statements, it would be challenging for the United States to avoid entering the war directly after such a Russian move. But this kind of attack is even less likely than a nuclear attack because of its lack of strategic logic. The Ukrainian military is already defeating Russian troops; the Kremlin must fear the potential for humiliation at the hands of NATO forces.
The Strength Of Reason
Given these significant barriers to drastic escalation on Putin’s part, the West can afford to turn down the panic meter a bit. Just as fears of Saddam’s possible desperate actions rightly did not dissuade us from liberating Kuwait in 1991, concerns about Putin’s desperation should not stop us from supporting Ukraine. Western leaders should continue their current course of action, which is to provide a steady supply of military aid to Ukraine, seek ways to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically, and keep NATO troops out of combat, knowing that this course allows Ukraine to fight, survive, and make headway without creating significant risks that the West’s worst fears might come true. Just as the United States should be careful not to provoke or provide a pretext for Russian escalation needlessly, there is also no need to seek peace at any price.
That said, finding a way out of the war and its escalating human costs has become increasingly urgent. The conflict continues to inflict enormous suffering on the Ukrainian people and economic damage on much of the world by disrupting the energy and food markets. And Putin can and may resort to tactics that could worsen this suffering and damage, even without pulling the nuclear trigger. Finding a way out means having a real conversation about the peace terms. Especially given Ukraine’s military successes this fall, Ukrainian recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea, as recently suggested by Elon Musk, is likely off the table. But in exchange for at least the Russian withdrawal of all troops from Ukraine and a verbal commitment to no longer support rebel groups inside of the country, Ukraine could agree to stay out of NATO, especially since Ukrainian NATO membership is unlikely to get through the U.S. Senate. Even without a membership, NATO could continue to supply Ukraine with training and weapons. Ukraine could also agree to restore the water flow to Crimea, something it could do without recognizing the Russian conquest of Ukraine.
One should not let exaggerated fears of desperate action dissuade from advancing national interests. The West’s enemies sometimes wish to feign desperation or madness to frighten it into inaction. Let us not accommodate them.