What Will Putin Choose? Ukraine’s capture of the city of Krasny Liman, now called Liman or Lyman, last Friday marked the culmination of a month-long series of major battlefield victories by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Since the end of August, Zelensky’s forces have recaptured thousands of square miles of territory, sending the Russian invaders reeling backward. Where Russia goes from here could have profound consequences for the United States and the Western world writ large.
There are three primary trajectories for the Russian leader and people: a “1942 moment” that heralds a major Russian military revival, a 1917-style internal political crisis that sparks a revolution and ends Putin’s rule and possibly his life – or a terrified and desperate Putin who plays the nuclear card. All three options have negative implications for the United States and the West.
Many in the United States and Europe have been celebrating incremental victories over the past five or six weeks as Ukraine has ripped off battlefield win after win. Russian forces in the north have surrendered thousands of square kilometers of territory back to Ukraine, and in the past few days, Putin’s troops have also been pushed back along the Dnieper River in the Kherson region.
Zelensky has been buoyed by the success, authoritatively declaring he will not negotiate anything until Russia has “another president,” besides Putin. Following Russia’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Zelensky defiantly declared “it is only the path of strengthening Ukraine and ousting the occupiers from our entire territory that restores peace. We will complete this path.” Zelensky’s senior advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said, then added, “Crimea.”
Many in the West are in a celebratory mood at the recent turn of events, arguing the war has turned “very dire” for Putin. Others believe it’s now only a matter of time before Zelensky’s dream of driving Russia out of all of Ukraine is realized. Caution, however, is in order. Wars rarely move linearly, and today’s victor could be tomorrow’s vanquished.
Analysts are right about one thing though: Putin is definitely at a crisis moment. How he reacts to these setbacks will have serious implications, not just for Kyiv and Moscow, but far beyond Ukraine’s borders. The West should disabuse itself of the notion that Putin is going to sit passively by while his forces are methodically whittled down, driven kilometer-by-kilometer to the east until his army collapses. If we know anything about Putin since he rose to power in 1999, it’s that he is relentless – and ruthless – in pursuit of his objectives.
With whatever course of action Putin eventually selects, there are three main potential outcomes of his efforts: a 1917-type revolution, a 1942-style battlefield turnaround, or possibly the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. Consideration of how each of these could impact American national security should give us all pause.
When Tsarist Russia went to war against the central powers in World War I, the first battle was a massive disaster. In the first month of the war, Russia sent its 150,000-strong Second Army to fight against the Germans in the Battle of Tannenberg. When the battle ended on August 28th, 1914, a stunning 140,000 Russians had been killed, wounded, or captured; it was one of the most epic failures in military history. But it didn’t signal the end of the war or the collapse of the Russian government.
Russia was led by Czar Nicholas II, who fancied himself a brilliant military strategist, which, according to historian Mayhill Fowler, “he was not.” By the end of the first year of the war, Russia had lost one million men, but still, the war went on and the people, though grumbling, continued to support the war effort. But as the battle losses piled up through 1915 and 1916, the Russian people had finally had enough and revolted in March 1917, deposing the Czar.
The Russian people have a historic capacity to endure suffering. Despite the early losses and failures in the war, they did not immediately turn against their leader. But even Russian patience can run out. By the time the Czar’s troops withdrew from the First World War and the revolution broke out, they had suffered an astonishing 6.7 million troops killed or wounded. While Moscow’s exit from the war eased pressure on Germany, it had catastrophic impacts on Europe – as it directly led to the rise of Stalin, Lenin, and the Russian Communist Party.
Thus far, Ukraine claims Russia has lost at least 50,000 troops. Last month Putin took the politically risky move of mobilizing 300,000 reservists, which was very unpopular in Russia, resulting in hundreds of thousands of military-aged males fleeing the country. While many in the West today are hopeful that Russia’s recent battle losses in the Kharkiv and Kherson fronts might cause the Russian people to turn against Putin and end his hold on power, history suggests such hopes are unlikely to materialize anytime soon.
In a poll taken after Russian losses in Kherson and Kharkiv and the subsequent mobilization announcement, Putin still had a stunningly-high approval rating of 77 percent. Though there has been grumbling among even pro-Kremlin supporters, it appears that the population in Russia is going to give Putin the benefit of the doubt for the moment, choosing to wait and see how the war turns once the Russian force grows by 300,000.
But if even the elevation in troop numbers doesn’t stop Ukraine’s advance and Zelensky’s troops start driving Russia further and further from Ukrainian territory in 2023, it is entirely conceivable that Russian patience could run out and a coup or revolution could topple Putin. Yet in a classic “be careful what you wish for,” situation, the possibility that a post-revolution Russia would produce a more Western-friendly leader is very low. It is far more likely that whoever replaces Putin would be more nationalistic, more autocratic, and more hostile to the West (calculating that Putin’s “weakness” was responsible for his loss to Ukraine and NATO).
A second possibility is that Putin’s response to the considerable losses his forces have suffered in the past month could mirror those of Moscow’s experience in the early part of World War II. Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 with a force of approximately three million German and allied troops. Hitler’s troops were initially successful to shocking levels of success.
By the spring of 1942, the Soviet Union had lost a mind-blowing 4,000,000 and was being driven back on almost every front. The nadir of the war for Russia came in July 1942 when the Soviets lost the strategically and psychologically important Crimea and its port city of Sevastopol. One month later, Hitler’s forces began the assault on the namesake of the USSR’s leader: Stalingrad. By all appearances, almost 18 straight months of unrelenting defeats would seem to have doomed the Russians to certain defeat.
But in August 1942, Stalin appointed Georgy Zhukov as the First Deputy Commander in Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces. Zhukov had been uniquely effective in command, as he had led the successful defense of both Leningrad and Moscow in 1941. With the Germans threatening to capture Stalingrad, Zhukov rallied the Red Army and covertly launched a massive counteroffensive, Operation Uranus, which by early 1943 stopped the German advance and destroyed or captured an entire German army of over 280,000 men. Hitler’s troops never recovered from the loss and the USSR steamrolled the Nazis to Berlin.
With the current battle in Ukraine, Russian troops have been retreating, surrendering thousands of square kilometers of territory back to Kyiv’s control. Russia still appears to be holding firm in the center (Donbas) but has suffered significant casualties in the north and south. The question facing Putin: will he, like his World War II predecessor, make the necessary changes in military leadership, ramp up his military-industrial capacity, and through the mobilization of his reserves, turn the situation in Ukraine around? Certainly, many in Russia are hoping for precisely this outcome.
Tactical Nuclear Weapon
The most frightening possibility for the United States, however, is clearly the nuclear option. In all likelihood, Putin’s vague warnings he might use nuclear weapons are, at the moment, a bluff. There can be no doubt that for any regime to use nuclear weapons, they realize the probability is very high that their nuclear-armed opponents will retaliate in kind. Putin is therefore highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons in the near term, as he is putting his current hopes that his conventional forces can turn the war around in 2023.
Putin certainly realizes that if his partial mobilization saturates the battlespace in Ukraine to sufficient mass and he can recapture lost territory, that would be his best bet, as there is no expectation that any other power in the world would directly strike Russia. If, on the other hand, Putin’s mobilization doesn’t produce a conventional victory, the fear of the 1917-style revolution or coup mentioned above may lead a desperate Putin to resort to a tactical nuclear strike.
It is completely understandable why many in the West would heartily applaud Ukraine’s recent run of tactical successes. But we also need to keep a sober eye on the long term and consider the end game and what these tactical successes could portend. Any reasonable analyst must realize that there is virtually no chance that Putin is going to allow his army to be forcibly ejected from Ukrainian territory, that he’ll sit passively by as the territory he just formally annexed into the Russian Federation is captured by Ukrainian forces, and not respond.
If conventional forces will deliver the success Putin desires, he’ll gladly go that path. But if even his mobilization fails to stem the tide, the chances of him using a battlefield nuclear device increase dramatically. One potential means of employment might be to destroy a large Ukrainian troop concentration near the front lines. Another option could be to demonstrate the use of the lowest yield device in his inventory in an isolated location, promising that if the Ukrainian army doesn’t withdraw from his newly-annexed territories Putin will order the next one on a high-value target in Ukraine.
We must never underestimate what a desperate leader – who has a nuclear arsenal – will do if pushed into a corner.
Ramifications for the United States National Security
As of today, Ukraine continues pressing offensive drives in the Kharkiv and Kherson directions. Russian positions are under assault in the town of Svatovo, just northeast of the recently-liberated Krasny Lyman, as Zelensky’s troops attempt to recapture Lysychansk. In the south, Ukrainian forces have made significant advances in the past several days north of Kherson City, along the Dnipro River.
Zelensky appears to have thrown caution to the wind and is pressing his troops on all fronts to press the Russians, trying to gain as much territory as possible, as quickly as possible, because he knows that soon the autumn rains will make cross-country mobility very difficult and within the coming month or two Putin will have up to several hundred thousand additional combat troops to bring to bear.
On the Russian side, Putin appears to have ordered his troops throughout Ukraine to hold as well as they can on all three fronts (Kharkiv, Donbas, Kherson), trying to prevent any large losses to Zelensky while buying time for Putin’s reinforcements to arrive on the scene. Meanwhile, it is very possible that Russia will start to use its air force, rocket forces, precision-guided missiles, and armed drones to attack Ukrainian command centers, ammunition depots, and troop concentrations behind the frontlines. Putin’s likely objective will be to weaken Zelensky’s forces and their ability to sustain operations so that they can try to retake all the territory lost when his new troops arrive.
It is unclear whether Zelensky’s plan or Putin’s plan will succeed. What seems to go unasked is actually the most important question: what outcome is in the best interests of our country? As this analysis exposes, there are three primary outcomes possible in this war: a 1917-style Russian revolution that deposes Putin, a 1942-style revival of Russian combat power, and the potential escalation to nuclear weapons. All of those outcomes are bad to catastrophic to American national interests.
If Putin is driven from power, the likelihood of an even more anti-Western strongman taking his place is high. There are few historical examples when a revolution or coup doesn’t produce violent men (think Stalin, Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini). If Russia pulls it together and employs a large army from its reserve capacity and belatedly learns combat lessons, it is entirely possible Putin’s armed forces could become a true conventional force and eventually defeat Ukraine. But thirdly, if Ukraine weathers Putin’s mobilization storm and continues, with NATO assistance, to win on the battlefield, then the Russian leader may fear being deposed and take the drastic action of resorting to nuclear weapons.
It’s hard to see any valid outcome from this point different from one of the three scenarios depicted above – and all would be bad for U.S. and Western interests.
It is time, therefore, to start giving serious consideration to taking a more diplomatic track and doing whatever is necessary to end this war as soon as possible. Ending the conflict, and ending the risk of nuclear escalation, that is in America’s national security interests. Trying to “defeat” Russia will likely not succeed and will pointlessly increase the risk to our national security.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.