Ukraine Put Putin in the Corner. Here’s What May Happen Next.

Mobilization could be in the cards, escalation is in the air, and Russian nationalists are braying for blood.

By , , and
An archery target featuring the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin
An archery target featuring the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin
An archery target featuring the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at a tourist attraction in Lviv, Ukraine, on April 24. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Almost seven months into a war that has already taken a number of unexpected turns, the Ukrainian military stunned the world as it succeeded in driving Russia’s forces out of swaths of territory in southern and eastern Ukraine in a counteroffensive over the past week. Armed with U.S.-supplied long-range weapons, the Ukrainian military destroyed Russian logistics hubs and arms depots in a series of strikes over the summer, undercutting the ability of Russian troops to bombard Kyiv’s forces from afar and leaving them vulnerable to attack.

The Russian military’s rapid collapse in the face of Ukraine’s surprise offensive has turned the whole narrative of the war on its head, convincing many Western policymakers that Ukraine could actually win a strategic victory, while pushing Putin to his most politically vulnerable point since the onset of the war after a series of embarrassing military setbacks for Moscow.

In a microcosm of the war thus far, analysts say Ukrainian forces in the latest offensive performed better than they could have anticipated, while Russian forces performed worse. Unlike Moscow’s tactical withdrawal from the Kyiv region in the spring as it sought to focus its efforts on eastern Ukraine, this time Russian troops scattered in the face of the Ukrainian advance, leaving behind scores of tanks and ammunition.

Almost seven months into a war that has already taken a number of unexpected turns, the Ukrainian military stunned the world as it succeeded in driving Russia’s forces out of swaths of territory in southern and eastern Ukraine in a counteroffensive over the past week. Armed with U.S.-supplied long-range weapons, the Ukrainian military destroyed Russian logistics hubs and arms depots in a series of strikes over the summer, undercutting the ability of Russian troops to bombard Kyiv’s forces from afar and leaving them vulnerable to attack.

The Russian military’s rapid collapse in the face of Ukraine’s surprise offensive has turned the whole narrative of the war on its head, convincing many Western policymakers that Ukraine could actually win a strategic victory, while pushing Putin to his most politically vulnerable point since the onset of the war after a series of embarrassing military setbacks for Moscow.

In a microcosm of the war thus far, analysts say Ukrainian forces in the latest offensive performed better than they could have anticipated, while Russian forces performed worse. Unlike Moscow’s tactical withdrawal from the Kyiv region in the spring as it sought to focus its efforts on eastern Ukraine, this time Russian troops scattered in the face of the Ukrainian advance, leaving behind scores of tanks and ammunition.

“The Russian military has performed worse than I would have ever imagined,” said Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. “It’s too early to plan a victory parade here, but I think the Ukrainians are at a point of achieving irreversible momentum so long as we, the West, stick with them.”

Amid a battlefield rout and increasing pressure from Russian nationalists and influential war bloggers, Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself under increasing pressure to escalate the conflict with an ever-more-threadbare military as the world waits to see how the country’s increasingly erratic president will respond to finding himself in the corner. 

“The last 200 years of Russian history suggest that when Russian leaders get into war and don’t win them, they can be in trouble,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior U.S. diplomat now with the Atlantic Council think tank. “And Putin is not immune from the general rule that losing wars is not popular.”

With Ukraine’s counteroffensive set to continue, Russia’s response is now out of the hands of the Russian military brass and likely rests on the political calculus of the Russian president, Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, said in an interview

Foreign Policy spoke to over a dozen experts, military analysts, and current and former diplomats in the United States and Europe to game out how Putin may respond as he increasingly finds himself in a corner. 

Escalate Where He Can 

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, senior officials in Moscow have not been shy about making thinly veiled references to the country’s nuclear arsenal, threats that are likely set to increase in the wake of recent battlefield losses. The prospect of Russia resorting to the use of what’s known as a tactical nuclear weapon—a small warhead intended for use on the battlefield—has loomed uncomfortably in the background throughout the war.

True to form, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave vague warnings of apocalyptic consequences if the West continued support to Ukraine and the conflict spiraled further during an interview with a Russian state-backed media outlet this week. “[People in] Western countries will not be able to sit in their clean houses and apartments, laughing at how they weaken Russia using proxies. Everything around them will go up in flames. Their citizens will get their fair share of woes. The earth will literally burn and the concrete will melt around them,” he said. 

Still, most experts deem any use of tactical nuclear weapons to be highly unlikely, though they aren’t willing to rule out the risk entirely. 

For one thing, it’s unlikely to force Kyiv to capitulate. “It wouldn’t change the calculus for Ukrainians. The Ukrainians already see this as an existential conflict,” Watling said. If Putin opted to detonate a small nuclear warhead on the battlefield and it did not force a sea change in the Kremlin’s favor, he would have lost one of his last remaining credible threats against the country—not to mention shocked the world and transformed Russia overnight into an international pariah far beyond its current isolation. “His last element of deterrence would have essentially been used other than a truly full-scale nuclear strike on the U.S. and NATO, which I truly don’t think anyone is considering here,” said Mason Clark, Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War. 

“The problem for Russia is that their overall goals and strategy have not really made much sense since April,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. “Ever since then, it’s been a question of how does Russia achieve conflict termination, and it seems that their guess is basically, let’s hope Ukraine gives up at some point, it’s too costly, or foreign support dries up.”  

Throughout the war, Russia has used long-range missile and airstrikes to target Ukrainian infrastructure, hospitals, and train stations in an apparent bid to terrify the population and undermine morale, which could provide an avenue for further escalation. Over the weekend and into Monday, Russian forces bombarded Ukrainian power plants in air and missile strikes, causing power outages in several regions. Hawkish commentators in Russian state media are calling for increasingly brutal reprisals (and potential war crimes) against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.

“There are non-strictly military ways in which they can make things worse,” said Angela Stent, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert on Russian foreign policy. “But again there’s a limit to what they can do, and so far we haven’t seen the kinds of cyberattacks that we thought we might see before.”

Mass Mobilization

For months, Russian officials have hinted at the prospect of a wider mobilization of troops, and they’ve run unsuccessful recruitment drives throughout the country, including in the far-northern Murmansk oblast. And Putin himself has ordered the military to recruit 137,000 more troops by January 2023, which will bring Russia’s active-duty armed forces to around 1.15 million. 

So far, the Kremlin has shied away from a mass mobilization or a national military draft out of concern that it could turn the otherwise passive Russian public against the war. “It’s one thing to send the poor people from Buryatia or Tuva or the Caucasus who desperately need the money to fight there,” Stent said. “But to try and mobilize the sons of the urban elite, the educated people—you’re going to get much more opposition to the war.” Even if the Kremlin were to announce full mobilization, it would take months to train the new recruits, and there are still open questions about whether the Russian military’s badly depleted ranks even have enough equipment to stand up a conscript army. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the Putin regime was “not considering” that option. U.S. officials also believe that Putin is boxed in because the Russian government has resisted formally declaring war on Ukraine, instead insisting publicly that it is waging a “special military operation” to protect Russian speakers in the Donbas region, despite a nearly seven-month campaign fought across most of the country. 

Russia has tried to stay the course with an unorthodox style of military recruitment that it is likely to continue, drawing on the paramilitary Wagner Group, pro-Russian separatists, residents of occupied areas of Ukraine, and even prisoners. A video circulating on Twitter on Wednesday appeared to show Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin ally who is reported to be behind the Wagner Group mercenary outfit, on a tour of a Russian prison camp seeking recruits to fight in Ukraine. Prigozhin also hinted that the Kremlin is considering harsher penalties for deserters.

“The first sin is deserting,” Prigozhin said at a Russian penal colony. “No one falls back. No one retreats. No one surrenders into capture. During training, you’ll be told about two grenades you must have with you when surrendering.”

But Putin may see his hand forced. “The political establishment, the siloviki [security services], the systemic opposition, United Russia, technocrats even, businesses, when they see what is going on they would prefer that Russia announce mobilization than Russia loses this war,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and founder of the R.Politik consultancy. “Their lives, their future careers, and safety is at stake.”

But Ukraine’s lightning offensive into the Kharkiv region, where lighter, more mobile formations were able to slice through weary Russian troops, surprised even officials in Kyiv with how quickly it advanced. And Ukrainian officials said that that the offensive—which has now recaptured more than 1,200 square miles of Russian-occupied territory, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—offered a possible preview of the downside of a mass mobilization for the Kremlin: Ukrainian forces encountered Russian troops, including some National Guard and police special forces rapidly thrown through training, who were simply unprepared to fight. 

“We thought that the Russians would be more of a tough guy than in reality,” a Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about ongoing military operations, told Foreign Policy. “They weren’t trained like regular troops.” 

Silencing the Critics

As Russia faces setback after military setback, Putin may face his biggest political challenges not from liberal anti-war activists on the left but rather the nationalistic pro-war faction of his power base to the right. 

Russian nationalist figures have begun openly criticizing the Russian government for what they see as Moscow pulling its punches in Ukraine. While few have openly criticized Putin himself, they are castigating the Russian government for not calling up mass conscription to fill the ranks of its depleted military machine and called for a form of “total war” against Ukraine with no regards to civilian casualties (despite Russia already being implicated in widespread war crimes against Ukrainian civilians). Among this loose coalition of nationalists, soldiers, and wartime bloggers is Igor Girkin, a veteran of the Russian security services and ultraconservative blogger with half a million followers on Telegram who has referred to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as a “plywood general.” 

Having served as useful cheerleaders for the war, Russia’s nationalist pundits have thus far been spared from the brutal crackdown visited upon other critics of the war. To bring them to heel, the Kremlin appears to be using a carrot and stick approach, Stanovaya said. Leading Kremlin loyalists such as RT’s editor in chief Margarita Simonya have called for cool heads, while Putin’s spokesperson appeared to issue a veiled threat to critics on Tuesday, warning that the line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism “is very, very thin.” 

“It was a warning,” Stanovaya said. 

Hold the Line and Hope Europe Folds

Another move Putin could make is, to paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to simply continue the war with the army he has, not the army he wants. That is, he could continue throwing ill-equipped and half-beaten Russian units at Ukrainian forces to bog down their advance as much as possible, at least until winter sets in. This strategy won’t do anything to help Russia achieve victory, which most analysts agree is becoming an increasingly distant possibility, but it could be enough to at least block Ukraine from a full-fledged victory this year. 

“It’s going to be very difficult for Russia to turn things around in Ukraine,” Hodges, the former U.S. Army Europe commander, said. “The main problems that have plagued Russia over the past six months are so baked into the culture, and all the institutions—the corruption, the weak logistics, the failed leadership, the manpower shortages, these are not things that can be fixed by just changing out commanders.”

Even with Ukraine’s setbacks, it’s still unclear whether Kyiv has enough forces and munitions to completely wrest all Ukrainian territory from Russian control, and in Putin’s mind, time may be on his side when it comes to trying to erode Western support for Ukraine. 

Russia has signaled it will cut off gas exports to Europe as winter sets in, a move aimed at undermining popular political support in Europe for the war and pressuring some European leaders to push Ukraine for a swift negotiation to end the conflict. 

“One card left in Putin’s deck that he hasn’t used is the full winter,” said Clark of the Institute for the Study of War. “We’re growing increasingly confident that the Kremlin is waiting to see what the effects of winter itself will have for European support for the war.” 

Some Ukrainian experts believe that Putin could also be banking on carrying out a spring offensive if he can make life more difficult for gas-starved Europe during the winter. 

“Putin really thinks that neither Europe nor Ukraine will survive this winter,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the founder and director of New Europe Center, a Kyiv-based foreign-policy think tank, on Monday. “That’s what he really hopes, and that is actually the central pillar around which he is now developing his strategy. If you are following the Russian narrative, they are saying, ‘Oh well, we are withdrawing now, but we will come back in spring and everything will be different.’”

Already there have been rumblings of dissent, with some 70,000 Czechs taking to the streets in early September calling for an end to sanctions on Russia over spiraling energy prices. Some Italian businesspeople have protested high power bills and blamed the European Union for their plight.

“The thing to be on the lookout for now is some effort to push the Ukrainians into political talks,” said one U.S. congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about internal deliberations. “What I’m really worried about is a scenario in which the Russians decide that they need to regroup and refit and take a deep breath. So they say whatever they need to say to get certain elements in the West to pressure the Ukrainians into signing some sort of cease-fire followed by a process of negotiations that won’t lead anywhere.”  

Some European officials also worry that Ukraine’s victory is a double-edged sword when it comes to support from major European powers such as France, Germany, and Italy—and could push those capitals to try to get Kyiv to sue for peace while it has the upper hand. 

“Their success in pushing the Russians back will help them politically,” said one senior Eastern European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly. “But seeing the Russian collapse around [Kharkiv], I’m concerned that some in the West will warn against ‘humiliating’ Putin and try to back up their resistance to give more weapons to Ukraine by fears of a Russian non-conventional response and escalation.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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