Editor’s Note: James Nixey is the director of the Russia-Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, specializing in the relationships between Russia and the other post-Soviet states. He previously worked as an investigative reporter at the Moscow Tribune. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Russia is losing its war against Ukraine. It is not defeated yet. But it is heading in that direction and President Vladimir Putin has fewer and fewer cards to play.
The combination of recent battlefield defeats and Western resolve – in particular, a realization that Europe can just about get through the winter on its reserves without Russia’s usual energy supply volumes, and Western politicians not wanting to U-turn and admit defeat – has dealt Russia a one-two punch.
Its supposed military strength and its status as an energy superpower to whom Europeans were addicted had been widely, and it turns out wrongly, assumed to be Russia’s strongest assets.
So, Putin, an extremist badly misled by his craven subordinates about Russia’s real abilities, has been forced to ‘twist’ – to continue in the language of cards — to up the ante with his latest nuclear threats (he has been doing it for 15 years), and with his half-hearted, but less politically risky, partial mobilization of supposedly 300,000 reservists.
It is the threat of nuclear weapons use, of course, which makes western decision-makers pause and, in some cases, go wobbly – as it is intended to do. It should not, after all, be taken lightly from a state which has turned toward fascism and holds just over half of the world’s nuclear weapons.
Yet an increasing majority of western and now non-western powers are realizing that nuclear blackmail cannot be surrendered to, and that the consequences of Russia winning the war would have long-lasting debilitating effects on European and global security. Many world leaders may wish to make concessions over the heads of Ukraine’s leaders. But it is politically awkward to do so when aggressor and victim are so clearly distinguishable from each other. And when Russia is on the run.
In any case, recent research published by Chatham House suggests that Russia’s threshold for nuclear weapons use is extremely high. The professional Russian military cadre has procedures and processes in place which mean there are a plenty of checks and speed bumps before nuclear weapons use would be considered.
Threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike is one thing, but serious people in important positions in Russia know that the consequences would be extreme – not least that it would bring many more countries into the war with ever greater weaponry. Deployment of a nuclear weapon is not impossible – this is an inherently unsafe situation – but it remains improbable.
All this said, many Western politicians are still fearful of calling for Russia’s actual defeat – fearful of the consequences of either the actions of a desperate dictator, or of an imploding Russia (with an even more extreme leader). The US, German and French leaderships in particular have not been so bold as to explicitly call for this, despite the undesirability of any outcome favoring or conceding to Russia.
Instead they talk more vaguely of Russia’s crimes and of supporting Ukraine (“for as long as it takes,” said German Chancellor Scholz, encouragingly). But they cannot conceive of a vanquished Russia and ritually speak of the need not to humiliate Russia (or even Putin) – without making the connection that successfully helping Ukraine to restore its territorial integrity would very much humiliate the Kremlin.
Indeed politicians are right to be fearful of a weakened and humiliated Russia. But logic suggests they should be even more wary of a strong and emboldened one.
Putin’s address Wednesday, therefore, changes little – certainly not Ukrainian determination, though conceivably it does further scare the Russian population afraid of getting caught up in the draft. Many Russians still support him (or at least are ambivalent), but most, also, do not want to fight.
Similarly, the referenda to be held across the parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region still held by Russia will also have little effect. In fact, these ‘votes’ are not even designed to give the veneer of legitimacy as with so many other Russian ‘elections’. That is too big an ask of all but the most ardent Putin apologists. At best, the referenda may offer a pretext to a wider Russian mobilization and the case that the war is now being fought on Russian territory – thus justifying the new reservist push and their inevitable sacrifice.
Putin’s likely next move then, as he desperately seeks new ways to shift the dial back in his favor, will be conventional weapons strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and ‘traditional’ hybrid warfare against the West – the true enemy in his eyes (according to his own words).
This is to be expected. Russia is down but not out. The Red Army fought poorly against Finland in 1939 and was pushed back by the Nazis in 1941. But they regrouped and came back strongly in the latter stages of the war. More recently, in Chechnya in the late 1990s, Russia turned it around (in part by upping the brutality) after a ‘poor’ start. This is no time for Western complacency.
Putin’s regime is outwardly stable. Only hairline fractures currently show (the odd mid-level defection, the occasional subtext of dissent from his outer circles of cronies, and of course this latest announcement itself).
But the more defeats inflicted upon him, the more his military commanders will lose confidence in him – to the extent they have not already. This would be the best outcome – a change of regime from within, not by the hand of the West or even its policies. And it is not beyond reach. This war will bring down Putin.