What’s Next for Putin and Ukraine?
Read time: 4 minutes
People who say Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing us toward World War III are not exaggerating.
If he gets his way in Ukraine, Putin will likely go further and launch an operation against a NATO member state. Putin wants to break the organization by challenging its Article 5 commitment to defend all NATO countries. However, the Russian leader may turn to nuclear weapons to achieve his goals in Ukraine and position Russia to directly fight the West.
That’s because things are not going well for him after a shaky start in Ukraine and a quick response from the West. Russia looks weak and therefore could be dangerous.
A Way Out?
The most plausible and painless way to end this war quickly and without unleashing more destruction and humanitarian tragedy is for Russia’s elites to remove the Russian president from power.
Moscow’s oligarchs and billionaires could be forced to take such action if the West continues to ratchet up pressure on the Russian government and its economy through sanctions and diplomacy. If the global community keeps tightening the pressure, those elites may say, “Look, we’ve got to get out of this. This isn’t working. Let Ukraine go. Let it be a democracy.” The elites would have to put in another leader who would accept a compromise or even accept defeat, which isn’t something Putin is likely to do.
It won’t be easy to replace Putin, but the West must keep up this pressure up despite the risk that Putin gets backed into a corner and takes irreversible and tragic action — like in the nuclear realm.
Putin’s paranoia is at an all-time high, and many are worried he might make such a drastic move. How did he get here?
Militarily, it looks as though the Russians did not fix the logistics problems that crippled their efforts in Georgia nearly 25 years ago. Russian military leaders at that time admitted that shoddy communication and coordination were to blame, and it seems a similar situation is playing out in Ukraine, where Putin’s military is stretched thin without adequate resupply.
There also appears to be a huge morale problem among Putin’s largely conscript army. The young men were lied to about the invasion. Back home, state media is trying to hide the truth from the Russian people, which will be hard because there are so many Russian eyewitnesses to what is happening in Ukraine, including those soldiers.
Putin’s intelligence officials probably told him that it would be a quick action and that he could encircle the capital of Kyiv, and there would be a capitulation from the government. That has not happened and likely will not happen.
Putin’s Next Move?
There’s a slim possibility that Putin withdraws, as he did in Georgia, and leaves forces behind. But that becomes less likely with each day of shelling in civilian areas of Ukraine. It’s more likely that Putin will inflict more pain and suffering.
Russian military doctrine includes the concept of escalating to de-escalate, which means using a weapon or means to shock your enemy into submission.
Putin could consider using a tactical nuclear weapon to achieve that escalation and get us to leave the battlefield. It’s most likely that he would do a demonstration explosion of a small tactical weapon to show that he’s willing to break the nuclear taboo and that the West should be afraid.
Another option is a cyberattack against an opponent that takes out utilities and infrastructure like electricity or water. This could bring down banking or lead to mass casualties at hospitals. Russia may believe such an attack would make the United States say, “Okay, you know what, Ukraine? You’re on your own.”
Russia has already started the shock campaign by violating the Geneva Conventions and targeting civilians in cities like Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Mariupol.
The Influence of the West
At the moment, the United States and European Union look strong, with a lot of political will and might on their side. Their reaction to the Ukraine invasion — especially to sanction Russia — has changed the global board. China now seems nervous about backing Russia too much. Germany quickly changed its decades-old view of Russia. Iran may even consider negotiating with the U.S. and E.U. on nuclear terms because of Russia’s waning influence.
The decisive action taken by the West toward Russia and Putin is a long time coming; frankly, many of these policies should have been implemented following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia has been allowed to flex its muscle without encountering a strong opponent. Because of that — and that there have been few consequences in recent memory — no one in Moscow foresaw these harsh sanctions. Had they known and understood, maybe they would have prevented Putin from taking this course of action.
The sanctions are working, but the United States and Europe must clamp down harder, which is a difficult thing when they know it will cause economic pain for their citizens. One of the few levers left are the sanctions on oil and gas sectors in Russia. Profits from oil and gas are financing the country’s war engine; cutting them off completely from the global economy will put pressure on Putin and his inner circle and could make it so painful that Russian elites make a change at the top. Imposing those oil and gas sanctions may hurt everyone’s pocketbooks in the West, but it’s the right thing to do.
About Evelyn Farkas
Dr. Evelyn Farkas served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia. She was the Senior Advisor for public-private partnership to the Supreme Allied Commander NATO/Commander, U.S. European Command, and the Special Assistant “Sherpa” to the Secretary of Defense for the 2012 NATO Summit. Before this, Dr. Farkas was Executive Director of the congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. Dr. Farkas also taught at the Command and Staff College of the Marine Corps University and served in Bosnia with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). She is now President of Farkas Global Strategies, where she provides corporate executives and boards of directors with targeted advice based on her assessment of global patterns and trends for potential opportunities or challenges. She is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
This geopolitical article is adapted from the GLG teleconference “Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” If you would like to speak with geopolitical experts like Evelyn Farkas, or any of our approximately 1 million Network Members, please contact us.