Five days into Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and things still seem to be in doubt. Russia dominates the “balance sheet” when you count missiles, tanks, aircraft, and ships. They may yet succeed in smashing through Ukrainian resistance with superior firepower. Or maybe President Zelensky’s luck runs out, and a Russian airstrike (or special forces op) succeeds in decapitating Ukraine’s government.
But it hasn’t happened yet. And each day Vladimir Putin fails to score an easy win, the less likely it is he’ll get it. As far as I can tell today, Ukraine’s will to fight is much, much stronger than anyone guessed—especially the Russians. Turns out that when you spend eight years teaching someone they’d better fight if they want to stop you from robbing them, they’ll fight when you try to rob them again. The average Ukrainian is pissed right now. And that counts for a lot.
So what comes next? Here’s my best guess.
- Russia dials up the firepower to try to bring the invasion to a conclusion. Expect larger and more indiscriminate air attacks, missile strikes, and artillery bombardments (for example, thermobaric rockets).
- With the extra firepower, Putin’s ground attack might succeed in overrunning Kyev. But that’s not going to be the end of the fight. Fierce Ukrainian resistance continues in the streets.
- Ukraine’s government retreats to Lviv; Putin attempts to install a new government in Kyiv. No one recognizes it except him. Again, Ukrainian resistance continues. Russian losses mount, along with protests at home and the sting of sanctions.
- Since it’s clear the Ukrainians won’t give, Vladimir Putin looks for the Next Step. He has to—he can’t politically survive a failed invasion of Ukraine. In fact, Putin probably can’t physically survive it. Once he loses power, the oligarchs he’s intimidated for years will see to it he never poses a threat to them again.
The Next Step is where things get really hairy. We’re all cheering for Ukraine to kick Vladimir Putin in the balls. But as I noted last week, a Putin with nothing to lose is much more dangerous than a Putin who can see a way out of the corner he’s in.
I can think of a couple of Next Steps.
Escalate to De-Escalate
There’s concern in Western defense establishments that Russia might embrace an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy. In other words, engage in limited nuclear strikes to avoid losing a conventional war, expecting that a rational opponent (us) won’t risk mutual assured destruction by replying in kind. Vladimir Putin is very aware of the fact that he’s got 6,000 nuclear weapons. I worry that if his choice becomes “fall from power and likely be killed” or “go all in by using a nuke,” he’d consider Option B.
(It doesn’t help that Russia has done more to update and improve its nuclear forces over the last twenty years than anyone else. At some point Putin might ask himself why he did that, if not to save his own ass someday. Things like his new Satan ICBM or his Poseidon nuclear drone torpedo are weapons the West doesn’t have an answer for.)
I don’t think Putin would nuke Kyev. It’s the seat of Russian national identity, symbolically important. He wants it intact. But Lviv, if it’s the seat of a relocated Ukrainian government? If Putin decides he needs to stop the fighting before it’s clear that he’s going to lose, and thinks he can bring a horrified world back to the negotiating table, he just might consider it.
The other path to victory after a stalemated invasion might involve forcing Ukraine’s Western supporters to abandon Ukraine. If Russia decided to shut off gas and oil shipments to Europe, it could spread the pain of sanctions far and wide. A Germany dealing with major blackouts might push Ukraine to the negotiating table in order to save their own economy. Or Putin might threaten to take his war to the Baltics, Poland, and Romania if they continue to let Western military assistance transit through their territory to Ukraine.
My guess is that Vladimir Putin has nothing but contempt for Western leaders. He’d calculate that if he gets the West to push for a return to negotiations, he’d get what he wants at the bargaining table. Not all NATO members would be willing to back Ukrainian “stubbornness” indefinitely; it wouldn’t take long for some voices to suggest neutralizing Ukraine as the easiest path back to normality.
Would Germany or France (or a Biden administration desperate for a “win” with midterms looming) buy their way out of World War 3 with a slice of Ukraine? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Finally, the Wild Card
My previous two points about escalation come with an important caveat: Would anyone in Moscow stand up to Putin and say “no” to orders that might start World War 3? If Putin appears to be out of his mind, would his own inner circle turn on him instead of following him into the abyss? Putin might gamble with the world, because for him there’s nothing after he loses. It’s not clear some oligarch or general would support the same gamble just so the boss can save his own neck.
I suspect that a really reckless escalation by Putin would expose the eternal weakness of despots: sooner or later, someone decides the least-dangerous option is to stab the tyrant.