Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

By , a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a former CIA operations officer, and the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia on April 21. Maksim Shkolnikov / Sputnik via AP

The mysterious fires and explosions that have plagued Russia in recent weeks have aroused suspicion and curiosity. If they are not coincidental, they raise an important question: Could such sabotage alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus to make good on his threats to employ nuclear weapons?

CIA director William Burns observed that Putin believes he can’t afford to lose in Ukraine, is likely to double down, and that his nuclear saber-rattling should not be taken lightly. Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia’s refocus on the Donbas was likely “only a temporary shift,” assessed that “Putin’s strategic goals have probably not changed,” and cautioned that his invasion could become “more unpredictable and potentially escalatory.”

The West has few remaining options to exact further costs—beyond war itself—should Putin elect to employ weapons of mass destruction within Ukraine or expand his invasion to Moldova. U.S. and allied enabling of a Ukrainian sabotage campaign inside Russia telegraphs a significant and escalating cost Putin can ill afford—but it is not without risk. Executed poorly or too aggressively, such a campaign could provoke rather than preempt. It could provide Putin the excuse to escalate and gift him a narrative he could use to rally domestic support.

The mysterious fires and explosions that have plagued Russia in recent weeks have aroused suspicion and curiosity. If they are not coincidental, they raise an important question: Could such sabotage alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus to make good on his threats to employ nuclear weapons?

CIA director William Burns observed that Putin believes he can’t afford to lose in Ukraine, is likely to double down, and that his nuclear saber-rattling should not be taken lightly. Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia’s refocus on the Donbas was likely “only a temporary shift,” assessed that “Putin’s strategic goals have probably not changed,” and cautioned that his invasion could become “more unpredictable and potentially escalatory.”

The West has few remaining options to exact further costs—beyond war itself—should Putin elect to employ weapons of mass destruction within Ukraine or expand his invasion to Moldova. U.S. and allied enabling of a Ukrainian sabotage campaign inside Russia telegraphs a significant and escalating cost Putin can ill afford—but it is not without risk. Executed poorly or too aggressively, such a campaign could provoke rather than preempt. It could provide Putin the excuse to escalate and gift him a narrative he could use to rally domestic support.

Putin and his inner circle most likely view the mysterious fires with far greater concern and urgency than outside observers realize—and they should.

The incidents have thus far been largely contained to Russian regions that border Ukraine, particularly the Donbas, the site of Putin’s latest offensive. Setting fire to oil, fuel, and ammunition storage facilities—all valuable military targets—is hardly random. That these targets were degraded with little evidence of civilian casualties is also a conspicuous clue.

A key Russian railway bridge in Belgorod had its rails upended in a manner consistent with old-school sabotage of the type seen as far back as the American Civil War. The apparently deliberate act incurred no fatalities but has had an outsized impact on Russia’s war effort given its disruption to supply lines into the Donbas. The one outlier among these events, if related, was a fire at Russia’s Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, about 110 miles northwest of Moscow. That incident left at least 17 people dead at a location far from the Ukrainian border.

Although Putin appears unfazed in public and has been quick to dismiss most of the episodes as coincidence, if acknowledging them at all, the president and his inner circle most likely view the matter with far greater concern and urgency than outside observers realize—and they should.

That’s probably the point of this initial wave. The targets and modus operandi suggest this first volley is as much a message meant to dissuade his weapons of mass destruction brinkmanship as it is a means to exploit Russia’s struggles in supply, communications, mobility, and leadership.

Declassified U.S. intelligence exposing Putin’s designs in Ukraine and countering Russian disinformation worked well in fortifying Western resolve to stand up to the brutal dictator’s aggression and in seizing the narrative. And while it might have mitigated the risk Putin would employ “false flag” provocations to justify using nuclear or chemical weapons, the revelations couldn’t preempt his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Adding the specter of sabotage within Russia that threatens Putin’s carefully groomed mystique of invincibility and control at home might, however, stop him from escalating further.


Sabotage behind enemy lines is a fundamental element of special operations warfare. It’s an integral tool for an insurgency or an army facing an opponent with superior numbers or equipment, as is the case in Ukraine. It works best for those enjoying a home-field advantage. The operators leverage familiarity with the terrain and their ability to mix with the local population. Such conditions enable effective casing, known as “close target reconnaissance,” and the ability to safely get in, execute, and depart the target without incident.

This capability has been in the modern U.S. intelligence community’s playbook since the days of the World War II Jedburgh program, through which the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, supported resistance groups across Europe and Asia. An updated version of the Jedburgh concept remains a core component of the advice, assistance, intelligence, and training the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. special operations elements are reportedly providing Ukraine.

The Jedburgh model is ideally suited for Ukraine as well as the United States’ Balkan NATO allies, as they face a numerically superior but, as proven by recent events, innately flawed Russian military opponent. Although Russia proved able to overcome initial setbacks in Syria, it struggles to adapt to dynamic field conditions. Russia’s army has neither trained nor properly prepared for this war, is plagued by corruption, and suffers from a stove-piped command structure, poor logistics, morale issues, and dependence on firepower over agility.

Unlike Syria’s rebels, the Ukrainian resistance includes a large number of organized professionals who had the benefit of extensive training, experience, and ongoing material and intelligence support from the West. Moreover, Ukrainians literally speak the same language as their opponents and have a great deal of shared history. Ethnic Ukrainians have lived in Russia and other former Soviet states for generations and are embedded into society.

The West also has a unique advantage in its ability to leverage the experiences, resources, and reach of the former Warsaw Pact nations that are now NATO members. These former Russian allies understand how to operate within the cracks of the Kremlin’s autocratic police state and bring unique capabilities and, not to be discounted, desires.

The psychological component has been overlooked by those who are focused purely on targets’ tactical military value. Such operations are designed to telegraph a capability that can be expanded across Russia and target platforms of increasing sensitivity and value to Putin. And his inability to prevent these acts—whether sabotage or drone strikes that penetrate Russian air defenses, leaves him looking weak—humiliated, and vulnerable.

Putin is a man quite seized with his image who recognizes how deflating that mystique could lead to indigenous copycats or spread to historically Kremlin-friendly former Soviet states like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Chechnya. Given how Putin appears to command by fear, publicly belittling top lieutenants in a televised national security council meeting, such perceived weakness could also encourage some within his own circle to act against him.

The threat that Ukraine, with Western support, could escalate such operations might be one of the allies’ best means to deter Putin from crossing a line in using nuclear or chemical weapons.

To date, there has been no Ukrainian acknowledgement of its hand in these incidents, nor should there be. U.S. officials should similarly withhold comment, neither confirming nor denying knowledge or complicity. That’s why it’s called covert action. But the mystifying manner in which U.S. officials appeared to casually acknowledge—if not boast—about sharing intelligence that helped Ukraine sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva and helped the Ukrainian military kill Russian generals makes one question whether or not the Biden administration has the necessary discipline to securely support such a Ukrainian-led effort.

It is the fig leaf of deniability that serves not merely Ukraine and its likely U.S. and NATO facilitators but also Russia. The threat that Ukraine, with Western support, could escalate such operations might be one of the allies’ best means to deter Putin from crossing a line in using nuclear or chemical weapons—from which there might be no return. As a former intelligence officer, he will recognize sabotage operations for what they are. But slapping him in the face with public humiliation is, as Biden said himself, “counterproductive” and likely to have precisely the opposite effect if the goal is to preempt and deter.

Strategically, sabotage operations offer Ukraine, the United States, and its partners the decided advantage of flexibility in ratcheting pressure up or down. Whereas sabotage and other covert means of pressure can be exercised incrementally and deniably, Putin has little else to do apart from grandiose public displays of saber-rattling, or worse, making good on those threats. And choosing the latter leaves no road back for any of the concerned parties.


Putin also appears to retain limited if any reciprocal physical sabotage capability. The Kremlin’s “illegal” operations relying on sleeper cells of Russian nationals assuming the identities of U.S. citizens to lay in wait for use in war have not fared well with the evolution of technology as well as U.S. counterintelligence efforts.

And while Russia’s mysterious GRU Unit 29155 was likely behind explosions targeting Czech and Bulgarian arms manufacturers supplying Ukraine in 2014 as well as the 2018 Novichok nerve agent assassination attempt against Britain-based KGB defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, neither episode ended particularly well for Russia. The Netherlands-based investigative group Bellingcat meticulously documented and exposed the operatives and their trails from open-source information alone. One can only imagine what professional intelligence and law enforcement agencies are doing.

Russian intelligence officers operating under official cover from diplomatic facilities are not faring much better. More than 100 Russian spies have been expelled from Western nations since the war began, no doubt inflicting significant damage on ongoing operations.

Not for lack of effort, there’s little evidence Russia has succeeded in executing catastrophic cyberoperations against the West. That said, it’s quite possible neither Russia nor the United States wish to open such a Pandora’s box, which neither is adequately confident in when it comes to deniability and escalation tolerance.

The calculus may change for Russia if Ukraine manages to use Western weapons in repelling Putin’s forces and threatening Russia’s border or for the United States if nuclear and chemical weapons are employed. And economically speaking, the more Putin reduces oil and gas supplies to the West, such as cutting off Poland and Bulgaria, the greater the harm he appears to be doing to his own economy.

For Ukraine and the West, the key is not getting greedy. Such operations must retain at least the semblance of deniability. These actions need to balance preserving the narrative that the world is not at war with the Russian people but fighting an illegitimate and harmful dictator and his kleptocratic cronies. The continued targeting of Russia’s military industrial and energy sectors exploits the growing wedge among Putin and his elites as well as the securocrats, known as siloviki, who control Russia’s institutions.

Ordinary Russians will shed few tears for the corrupt oligarchs’ financial losses and the siloviki’s reduced status. But operations must ideally avoid or at least minimize civilian casualties lest they rally Russian nationalistic sentiments and inadvertently play to Putin’s message of victimization.

Time does not appear to be on Putin’s side—not on the battlefield, economically, or politically. Desperation rather than recklessness could leave him seriously considering once unthinkable measures despite the self-inflicted consequences. With few overt options short of going to war, covert sabotage operations might prove to be a critical deterrent—if not the best and only remaining one.

Douglas London is a professor of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is a Russian-speaking operations officer and served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for more than 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa—including three assignments as a chief of station, including in a former Soviet state. He is the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. Twitter: @DouglasLondon5

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