Putin and his associates understand that the military dynamics are unfavorable to Russia. They are also aware that domestic opinion has, for the first time, grown critical both of the war’s conduct and more broadly of Russian governance. Most disturbing for the Kremlin is criticism not from the liberal opposition but from Russian nationalists, including war bloggers and patriots who support Putin but are concerned that the government is not doing enough to prevail. Moscow now hopes that partial mobilization will help turn the tide. It also hopes that recent changes introduced in the military command, combined with Russian forces gaining more experience and receiving more sophisticated military hardware, will force the United States and the European Union to change their position on negotiating with the Kremlin, whether Volodymyr Zelensky likes it or not. New advanced missiles would be sufficient to, at a minimum, rebuff the Ukrainian offensive, hold ground during the winter, and meanwhile exacerbate economic difficulties in the West through high energy prices.
But if these aspirations prove futile, any expectation in Washington, Brussels, or Kyiv that Putin will accept an outcome tantamount to surrender is questionable at best. New rounds of missile strikes in response to the attack on the Crimean Bridge are widely regarded in Russia as a weak response compared to what must be done and what its resources will allow. Putin spoke specifically about attacks on the Crimean Bridge, Nord Stream I, and Nord Stream II as terrorist acts, which allow Russia to retaliate in kind. The Russian general staff and security services are apparently preparing options for the Kremlin on what can be done to inflict painful damage on Ukraine’s foreign supporters. It is now a widely accepted view in Russia that the country is not so much fighting Ukraine as it is the collective West; it is the West, in other words, that must be made to suffer in order to meet Moscow’s minimal objectives. Putin has so far hesitated to move in this direction, due in part to his desire to maintain as much normalcy in Russia as possible. There is an increasing sense among the Russian political class, however, that the so-called special military operation cannot finish the job, and what is required now is a broader shift toward a national war footing that will motivate the population—not a war of choice, but something more existential. In such a war, the use of any weapon in the Russian arsenal would be contemplated, with the obvious hope that it would not come to strategic nuclear weapons. As far as tactical nuclear weapons are concerned, the government discourages any public discussion of their use. Moscow does not want to appear internationally as a warmonger, nor does it want to frighten the general population where most Russians believe that once nuclear weapons are used, an eventual catastrophe would be difficult to avoid. According to reliable sources, however, options involving tactical nuclear weapons are simultaneously being developed by the general staff—and not only for use on Ukrainian territory. No one can say exactly under what circumstances these plans would be implemented, but if Ukrainian forces were indeed able to retake Kherson, eliminate Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, destroy the Crimean Bridge, and intensify their already growing air attacks on Russian territory, all bets on Putin’s continued restraint would become a risky proposition indeed.
Responding to warnings from the United States and NATO that any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would lead to a devastating NATO non-nuclear counterattack on Russian military forces and Russian territory, a well-connected, mid-ranking Russian general claimed that Moscow has no plans to use nuclear weapons. Such a scenario would happen only under the direst circumstances in which, according to Russian military doctrine, Russia would be under nuclear attack, face an imminent threat to its deterrent forces, or have the very existence and territorial integrity of the country threatened. But Crimea is today treated as an integral part of Russia. The very purpose of the recent referendums that brought Donetsk and Luhansk and parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia was to have a deterrent effect, permitting Moscow to declare that because they were now a constituent part of Russia, an attack on them would be an attack on the motherland itself. In responding to a threat of the most severe consequence for Russia, the general claimed that they would rely on the orders of the commander-in-chief in dealing with the situation. Any belief that NATO could openly enter the war without expecting massive retaliation, however, would be misplaced. As he put it: “we hope it would never come to something like that, but there are contingency plans to deal with any eventuality, and some of them include striking preemptively at enemy targets if they are about to be used to strike Russia.”
Reporting on a recent Putin press conference in Astana for Kommersant, an independent-minded newspaper, Andrei Kolesnikov, who is also a prominent Putin biographer, observed, “No he does not resemble a man who can decide to use nuclear weapons. Yes, he can make such a decision but he doesn’t actually have it in him to use them.” This is a comfortable evaluation of Putin for Americans. But it would not be prudent for decision-makers to base U.S. foreign policy on it.
For Washington to now rely on Putin’s timidity in Ukraine, with huge stakes for Russia and for the Russian leader personally, would be playing games with America’s very existence. Fortunately, the United States has a credible alternative to experimentation with destiny. With Russian military setbacks in Ukraine and domestic challenges to the war’s conduct—on top of his confrontation with the collective West without the help of allies—Putin may well consider negotiated arrangements which could be acceptable to the West. This includes a ceasefire with some peacekeeping arrangements and rules of the game to make the ceasefire more lasting. Russia would have to give up its current position that all territories of the newly annexed provinces—including those currently under Ukrainian control—should belong to Russia. Russia would also need to relinquish its original demand of the removal of Zelensky’s government. Ukraine in turn would need to accept that those territories controlled by Russia would not be returned until subsequent negotiations. A ceasefire would also prohibit any sabotage or terrorist acts against Russia, something that Ukraine has increasingly practiced with NATO’s not-so-silent consent. The plan would additionally need to address sanctions: no new sanctions could be introduced while the ceasefire was in place, and there could be some relaxation of existing ones. But for most sanctions to be removed, Russia would have to wait until a more comprehensive agreement was negotiated, providing Ukraine and its supporters strong leverage to encourage future Russian flexibility.
Would the Zelensky government—with its new self-confidence and expectation of continual reinforcement from the United States and NATO—entertain such a compromise? Right now, it seems unlikely. But in the coming months, the desire for a negotiated end to the war may grow in both the West and Russia. Kyiv is entitled to make its own decisions, but it is not entitled to dictate what level of support it receives from NATO, or for how long it would get it, particularly when the very survival of NATO members is involved. It would be a grave mistake to maintain that NATO should support Ukraine as long as it takes without pursuing a diplomatic solution to a conflict that could easily spiral out of control. Diplomacy without peace rarely works when combat has already been unleashed. But in dealing with a major nuclear power, military force without diplomacy cannot deliver lasting results and can lead to an unparalleled catastrophe with consequences beyond comprehension. Extremism in the name of a liberal world order is extremism nonetheless. It requires courage and vision to create peace but failing to make the effort would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty.
Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher & CEO of the National Interest.