I wanted to update you with some thoughts on recent events in the Russo-Ukraine war. When I write posts like this I usually get a bundle of messages to the effect of, “No, we can’t give in to Russian threats. We see where that’s gotten us.” So let me anticipate that by saying that I agree. I don’t think we should give in to increasingly shrill and unhinged Russian threats to use nuclear weapons over (literally or figuratively) Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a highly and increasingly dangerous situation. To bring you up to date, over the last week discussions and planning in NATO and U.S. national security circles have turned heavily toward the possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. You can see various efforts to quantify these risks in terms of percentage chances or the rise in the percentage chance from last month to now. But really these things are impossible to quantify. Certainly they are impossible for me to put any meaningful numbers to. So what I’d like to do here is just describe the confluence of events getting us to the point where this seems like a real possibility.
As you know, the Ukrainian army last month made a series of major breakthroughs in the occupied eastern part of the country. Lines that had been relatively stable for months quickly collapsed. One key driver of this success, though only one, was the U.S. supply of long range artillery which allowed the Ukrainians to disrupt and destroy logistics and supply networks behind Russian lines, thus softening them up for these advances. In response President Putin went ahead with two threats which have loomed over the war since February. He held sham referendums in partially occupied eastern Ukrainian regions and just days ago formally annexed them to the Russian Federation. Far more concretely he declared a “partial mobilization” in Russia. In general this meant going from Russia’s version of a peacetime army to a general draft and in other ways putting the whole country on a wartime footing.
How has it gone? Not well.
Just over the course of this weekend, Russia troops were forced to evacuate Lyman, a strategic railway hub in the Donetsk region, which Russia claims to have just annexed to Russia. This comes after Ukrainian troops essentially encircled it and made holding the town impossible. A day after Putin grandly announced new provinces becoming part of Russia he faced the embarrassment of having his military withdraw from part of this new Russian province. So that series of major breakthroughs from September continues. The breakthroughs in September were no one-off. They continue to push the Russians east.
Most military analysts believe Russia simply doesn’t have the troop strength to hold its occupied territory in the eastern Ukraine. That’s what forced the general mobilization. They simply don’t have enough troops to maintain their positions. The problem, according to a consensus of experts, is Russian support for the Ukraine war has been highly reliant on its having relatively little direct impact on the lives of most Russians. As one taxonomy puts it, Russian society is divided in three: a radical minority in favor of all out war and mobilization, an effectively suppressed minority opposition and the largest part of society which has remained passively supportive on the condition that they can basically ignore the war because it doesn’t affect them. That was the logic of the so-called “special operation,” not a war, not something that you need to worry about, just a limited action that Russia’s peacetime army can handle.
The mobilization clearly changes that fairly dramatically as hundreds of thousands of young and not so young men are sucked into the conflict. Over the last week various videos have surfaced of protests and sometimes violent riots at recruiting offices and centers. President Putin was compelled to produce a video denouncing the recruiting officers who were recruiting the wrong people — bad boyars, good czar. This is the reaction which kept Putin from taking this step all through the war. But he had no choice. The last polling organization generally deemed to be a broadly accurate measure of Russian public opinion showed Russians reacting to the mobilization order with a mix of fear and anger.
What’s more, these newly mobilized conscripts won’t have a baseline level of training to be effective on the ground until early next year. Some are reportedly being sent into combat only days after enlistment.
Various points here are open to interpretation. But in its broad outline this captures the state of things going into the winter of 2022-23. That reality is that Russia is losing the war it started in Ukraine and seems likely to keep losing, perhaps rapidly. This has implications far beyond Ukraine. The Russian military has been revealed to be far less fearsome than most of the world believed or perhaps could even have imagined. Ukraine is trying to maintain the momentum of its current offensive and move rapidly before winter sets in and before Russia can get mobilized troops to the front lines. To stabilize the situation on the ground in Ukraine, Russia has been forced to take steps that will likely build opposition to the war and general discontent within Russia. How quickly these actions will sow discontent within Russia and whether that discontent will pose a real threat to Putin’s rule I’m not in a position to say. But it’s not hard to imagine the overlapping factors of sanctions, mobilization and losing a war of choice could shake Putin’s remarkably resilient hold on power. He certainly seems to see victory in Ukraine as an existential matter for him and it may be.
He is doubling and tripling down on what seemed at the time and in retrospect was clearly a catastrophically bad decision to invade Ukraine. It’s the shambling results of the compounding effects of the degenerate political culture that Putin leads and is even more the product of: Corruption, gangster economics, authoritarianism, weakness. (No governments handle defeat well; but authoritarian regimes manage it especially poorly since their legitimacy rests on dominance.) All of that has led to a situation in which Russia is losing and its options to change the direction of the conflict are diminishing. The one card to play is the one thing that keeps Russia plausible as a great power: one of the world’s two great nuclear arsenals.
It’s the one thing Russia does well. Or has that few others have. The ability to destroy at will and on a global scale. Putin has been threatening to use nuclear weapons since the beginning of the conflict. Threats to irradiate whole countries in Europe and North America have become commonplace on state Russian media. Putin’s own threats have become increasingly shrill and reached a new height in his speech welcoming the annexations last week. Indeed, the whole point of the sham referenda appears to be to say that the red line NATO and the U.S. have recognized at Russia’s border is now in what used to be Ukraine so continuing the war is attacking Russia and thus risking nuclear war.
Obviously Russia is going to use nuclear weapons or not depending on whether its leaders believe it can or it must and that’s the case whether it calls that defending (annexed) Russian territory or because it’s losing its war of choice in Ukraine. The annexations don’t change anything. They’re simply the restatement of the same threat. As is always the case with nuclear weapons, the horrible power is belied by the difficulty of using them to accomplish anything. Threatening their use can be highly effective; actually using them much less so. Putin is trying to translate his nuclear arsenal into a new deterrent threat. But it’s not working. It’s not clear he has other cards left to play. Over coming weeks we’re likely to see Russian defeats piling up and Putin’s continued threats to escalate to nuclear weapons ring more and more hollow. It’s like several vast objects converging on the Russian regime and Putin himself, threatening to break him. So what does he do in response?