With his threat to use nuclear weapons, Putin is engaging the Western public in a psychological game designed to cloud their judgment. If we want to know how the war might end, we should follow the trail of the Kremlin’s logic of power.
In the beginning, no one could have imagined that Russia would launch a war against Ukraine. And yet the war began. And now no one can imagine how it could end. And yet it will end one day.
Tyrants like Putin arouse a certain fascination because they give the impression that they can do whatever they want. But that is not true, and their regimes are deceptively fragile. The war will end when Ukraine’s military victories change Russia’s political reality – a process that has already begun.
At this point, it is difficult for us to see how Ukraine can achieve victory even if it makes military progress. This is because many of our ideas are trapped in a single and rather unlikely option for ending the war: a nuclear explosion. We are attracted to this scenario because we lack other options and the nuclear bomb seems like the end. Yet the image of the mushroom cloud as the conclusion of this story evokes fear and prevents clear thinking. Focusing on this scenario prevents us from seeing what will actually happen and from preparing for more likely scenarios. We should never lose sight of how much a Ukrainian victory will improve the world we live in.
I will outline one likely scenario that could play out in the near future (there are others, of course). The idea is that Russia’s conventional defeat in Ukraine subtly turns into a Russian power struggle that subsequently leads to Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. This is a very familiar pattern historically. But first the nuclear option must be put aside. When we talk in general terms about a possible nuclear war, we imagine that the Russia-Ukraine war is mainly about us. We feel like victims, we talk about our fears and anxieties. Newspapers write articles about the end of the world. However, the war in Ukraine will almost certainly not end in a nuclear exchange. Some states with nuclear weapons have fought and lost wars since 1945 without using them. Nuclear powers have suffered humiliating defeats in countries such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, yet have not detonated nuclear weapons.
There is certainly a certain temptation to succumb to the nuclear blackmail mentality. As soon as the subject of nuclear war comes up, it seems to be extremely important, and we despair and obsess about it. This is precisely what Putin is trying to steer us towards with his vague allusions to the use of nuclear weapons. He is making us imagine things that do not even threaten Russia. We start talking about the Ukrainian surrender to get rid of the psychological pressure we feel.
However, by doing so, we are doing Putin’s job and he can save himself from the disaster he himself has caused. He has realised that he can lose the conventional war he started. He hopes that his mention of nuclear weapons will deter Western democracies from supplying arms to Ukraine. In addition, he should buy time to get Russian advances on the battlefield and slow down the Ukrainian offensive. He is probably wrong, but rhetorical escalation is one of the few options left.
The question of morality
Russia says it is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of new troops. It doesn’t look good, but still: would Putin really take the political risk of a large-scale mobilization, send Russian boys to Ukraine, and then detonate nuclear weapons nearby? Morale is already a serious problem. More than half a million Russian men appear to have fled the country – more than are being sent to Ukraine. It would be of little use if Russian soldiers thought they were being mobilised to a zone where nuclear weapons were to be detonated. They will not be provided with proper protective equipment. Many mobilised soldiers do not even have the appropriate equipment for conventional warfare.
Russia has just declared that parts of eastern and southern Ukraine now belong to Russia. This is, of course, ridiculous. But would Moscow really use nuclear weapons in areas it considers Russian and kill or irradiate people it considers Russian citizens? It’s not entirely impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.
And even if it did happen, the war would not end there, at least not with a Russian victory. And we’re not even talking about deterrence: the expectation that the use of a nuclear weapon will provoke a strong reaction from other countries. The Americans have had months to deliberate, and their response to a Russian nuclear strike is likely to be calculated to cripple Russian forces and humiliate Putin personally. Another indirect form of deterrence is the certainty that Putin and Russia will lose the support of the world if they use a nuclear weapon.
Assuming that Russia, against all odds, managed to detonate a small nuclear bomb in Ukraine, this would not be of decisive military importance. There are no significant groupings of Ukrainian troops or Ukrainian equipment to target because Ukraine is fighting in a very decentralised way. If there were a detonation, the Ukrainians would keep fighting. They have been saying this for months and there is no reason to doubt it.
There is also the problem of motivation. Putin wants us to empathise with his situation. But is what is being written about him at all credible? “Putin has his back against the wall. What will he do?” That’s how the idea of nuclear weapons comes about. Putin is making a psychological connection with us. But it’s all a feeling, not a real motive.
If the frustration of defeat were a motive for using nuclear weapons, it would have already happened. There is hardly anything more humiliating than Russia’s defeat in front of Kiev. The fall of the front in the Kharkov region was also a shock. And at the moment, the Ukrainians have made significant progress in the regions that Putin has just declared in a major televised ceremony to be Russian territory forever. The official Russian response to this predicament has been that the borders of the territory have not yet been determined. As experience shows, the Russian response to a show of force is to retreat.
The furniture is being moved
Let’s look at Putin’s position a little more closely. Russian forces are not “against the wall” in Ukraine: if they withdraw to Russia, they are safe. Nor is the “wall” metaphor very useful to describe Putin’s position. It’s more like furniture is being moved around and he has to reorient himself.
What he has done in Ukraine has changed his position in Moscow, and for the worse. It does not follow that he “must” win the war in Ukraine, whatever that means. What matters is retaining power in Moscow, and that does not necessarily mean exposing himself to further risks in Ukraine. Once (and if) Putin realises that the war is lost, he will reassess his position at home.
Over the summer, things got easier. Until recently, presumably until his speech in which he declared mobilization, Putin could simply declare “victory” in the mass media and most Russians would be satisfied. But now he has taken his senseless war so far that even the Russian information space is beginning to collapse. Because of mobilization, Russians now fear war. And now even TV propagandists admit that Russian troops are on the retreat. So, unlike the first six months of the war, Putin can no longer simply say that everything is fine and let it go. He must act.
The ground beneath Putin’s feet has moved. His political career is based on the use of controlled media to make a spectacle of foreign policy. Yet the regime’s survival has always depended on two assumptions: that what happens on television is more important than what happens in reality, and that what happens abroad is more important than what happens at home.
It seems that these two assumptions are no longer valid. With mobilization, the distinction between home and abroad has blurred, and with battles lost, the distinction between television and reality has diminished. Reality is beginning to matter more than television, and Russia will matter more than Ukraine.
There is a split in both elite circles and public opinion in Russia that is now visible on television. Some think the war is a holy cause and that it can be won if only heads were turned, the leadership behaved honorably and more men and material were sent to the front. This includes the military bloggers who are really on the front lines and whose voices are coming to the fore.
It’s a trap for Putin because he’s already sending everything he has. Their voices are weakening him. Others think the war was a mistake. These voices are making him look more and more foolish. These are just the most basic of the many contradictions that Putin must now face from an exposed and weakened position.
Putin is stuck
The mobilization was the worst of both realities: big enough to antagonize the population, and at the same time too small, and above all too late, to make a difference before winter. It was probably the result of a compromise, proving that Putin does not rule alone. Putin seems to be trying to command the troops in Ukraine alone. His failures have earned him (so far indirect) criticism. But Putin seems to be stuck: merely ending the war now, without being able to focus on another issue, would strengthen his critics. And now that he has tried to mobilize, he has few options to bring more violence into play.
Putin is trapped in a spectacle that was only supposed to be played out on television and in a remote location, but which now has immediate political implications in Russia. Two prominent political figures, Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, have attacked the Russian high command quite sharply. Since everyone knows that Putin is really in charge, this must have caused a split. The Kremlin responded directly to Kadyrov, and the military propaganda put one of the criticized commanders in the showcase with his soldiers.
It’s probably no coincidence that both Kadyrov and Prigozhin have some kind of private unit. Kadyrov, the de facto dictator of Russian Chechnya, has his own militia. It was deployed in Ukraine, where it apparently specialized in terrorizing civilians and staging Instagram posts. Having long pushed for mobilisation in Russia, Kadyrov has now announced that no one from Chechnya will be mobilised. This would suggest that he is saving his men for something else.
Prigozhin, on the other hand, is the leader of the obscure mercenary organisation of the Wagnerites, and is increasingly asserting himself in that capacity. The Wagnerites have been involved in a number of coup attempts, such as the bloody purges of Russian puppet governments in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and the attempted assassination of Volodymyr Zelensky at the start of the war. (…) The Wagnerites are not active where the Ukrainians are launching successful counterattacks. Recently, even Gulag.net reported that one of the Wagnerites shot a Russian army officer, suggesting that all is not well on this part of the front.
When the turning point is approaching
Both Prigozhin and Kadyrov are calling for an intensification of the war and mocking the Russian high command in the most aggressive tone, but at the same time they seem to be protecting their own people. This, too, is a trap. By criticizing the way the war is being waged, they weaken Putin’s control over information. And by forcing Putin to be held accountable, even though they don’t want to, they further expose his position. They are telling him to win a war that they do not seem to want to win themselves.
In the general logic I am describing, the rivals would try to spare all the fighting forces at their disposal, either to protect their own interests in unpredictable times or to have a chance in the power struggle in Moscow. If this is indeed the case, it will soon seem foolish to all concerned to have troops stationed in distant Ukraine or to sacrifice them there day after day. The turning point is approaching. For once others realize that some players are holding their own people back, it will seem pointless to them to lose their own people.
At some point this logic will apply to the Russian army as well. Commanders will be motivated, as long as they can command troops, to keep the military playing a role in Russian politics or enjoying prestige in Russian society. And if Putin wants to stay in power, neither a discredited nor a demoralized military is in his interest.
Mobilisation itself looks like a spear thrown in the wrong direction. Does it make sense to send thousands of unprepared and ill-equipped men into a zone that is increasingly known to be their undoing? Putin assumes that mobilized soldiers will either die or win. But if they flee instead, they will become a dangerous force that may be prepared to fight for another leader.
And so the likely scenario for the end of this war looms. War is a form of politics and the Russian regime is losing ground through constant defeats. While Ukraine continues to win new battles, a fundamental reversal is taking place in Russia: television is bowing to reality and the Ukrainian campaign is giving way to a power struggle in the Kremlin. In such a struggle, it is useless to have armed allies far away in Ukraine who could be more usefully deployed in Russia. Not necessarily in an armed conflict, although that cannot be entirely ruled out, but as a deterrent and for their own protection. It might not be good for all concerned to admit defeat in Ukraine, but it would be far worse to lose in Russia.
If the instability caused by the war in Ukraine spills over into Russia, the leaders who benefit from this instability or protect themselves from it will want to keep their centres of influence close to Moscow. This would be very good for Ukraine and for the world.
If this scenario came to pass, Putin would no longer need any excuse to withdraw from Ukraine – he would do so in the interests of his own political survival. He may be personally attached to his strange ideas about Ukraine, but the question of power will be more important to him. From this perspective, we need not worry about how Putin views the war and whether Russians will bitterly mourn defeat. During the internal struggle for power in Russia, Putin and others will have more important things on their minds than Ukraine.
All this is, of course, very difficult to predict, especially in detail. A different outcome is quite possible. But the logic of the developments discussed here are not only more likely, but more importantly more likely than the nuclear doomsday scenarios that many fear. It is worth thinking about this further and, if possible, preparing for it.
Timothy Snyder, American historian and professor at Yale University.
The full text was first published on the author’s website. Translation and editorial cuts.
This version was taken and translated from the edited version published in online revue Přítomnost.
published: 1. 11. 2022