Having lost the Battle of Kyiv, Russian war criminal Vladimir Putin is trying to salvage military success in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. His army’s progress has been “slow and uneven,” and that’s even before all of the heavy weaponry committed by the West reaches the defenders. Once the Ukrainian armed forces incorporate all of their new equipment, they should be poised to launch a counteroffensive that could regain lost territory.
What will Putin do then? There is a widespread concern that he can’t afford to lose and therefore will double down. He could escalate either with more conventional military power or with chemical or nuclear weapons. Some still expect that, one way or another, Russia will win. “If western leaders think that their arms-length encouragement of Ukraine will bring about a Ukrainian military victory, then they are fatally misreading Putin’s intentions and resolve,” writes a British journalist and former “consultant to the Kremlin.” That article sounds as if it’s from February, but it actually ran in the Guardian last week.
One scenario mooted by analysts is that Putin will use the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Red Square, commemorating the end of World War II, to announce an expanded war effort in Ukraine. Having previously tried to pass off the invasion as a “special military operation,” he could now declare war and announce a total, World War II-style mobilization. He might imagine that he could crush Ukraine with vastly more tanks and troops. But that will risk social unrest and still probably won’t deliver victory.
Russia is a big country (population 144 million), but Putin does not have a big pool of trained military manpower on call. Russia conscripts roughly 260,000 men a year in two drafts, in the spring and fall, for a one-year period. But even if Putin were to send conscripts into Ukraine (which he vows he won’t do), they would still require at least four months of training — and even that would produce low-quality, unmotivated troops. Russia’s best units, made up of contract soldiers, have performed abysmally. Conscript-heavy forces would do even worse.
On paper, Russia has more than 2 million former servicemen in reserve, but, according to the Institute for the Study of War, few of them receive any refresher training. A 2019 Rand report found that only 4,000 to 5,000 reservists would be considered comparable to U.S. National Guard or reserve members. The defense ministry launched an initiative in 2021 to expand the reserves to 80,000 to 100,000 troops, but there is no indication that this ambitious objective is being achieved.
Even if Russia were to throw vast numbers of ill-trained conscripts into battle, it would have difficulty equipping them. The Russians claim to have more than 10,000 tanks and 36,000 other armored vehicles in storage, but most are likely antiquated and dilapidated. Russia is losing its best military equipment in Ukraine and will find it hard to field replacements. Western sanctions are strangling Russian military production lines by stopping the flow of microchips. The Russian military, for example, is running short on precision-guided munitions.
And even if Russia could field a lot more low-quality troops equipped with out-of-date equipment, it would have difficulty supplying them. Russian logistics haven’t been able to keep up with an invasion army that initially numbered about 150,000 men. How would they supply a larger force? More Russian troops would just create more targets for all of Ukraine’s modern weapons.
A scarier scenario would be if Putin were to use chemical or, especially, nuclear weapons. Russian propagandists regularly threaten to wage nuclear war if their forces lose in Ukraine, and Putin himself engages in nuclear saber-rattling to intimidate the West.
The least likely scenario is the most apocalyptic one: Russia attacking NATO countries with conventional or nuclear weapons. Putin isn’t suicidal, and he knows that the U.S. response would be devastating. A more limited use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainian bases or population centers is slightly more plausible. Putin might start with a demonstration strike to terrorize Kyiv into surrender. (Chemical weapons use is more likely still, but it wouldn’t be a game changer.)
President Biden needs to prevent that from happening by emphasizing that, while under current circumstances the United States will not fight Russia directly, all bets are off if Putin goes nuclear. Even without resorting to nuclear weapons of their own, NATO could launch airstrikes that would rapidly sink the entire Russian Black Sea fleet and destroy much of the Russian army in and around Ukraine. That would shake Putin’s criminal regime to its foundations.
We cannot stop Putin from a reckless escalation, but we need to convince him that the price would be too high to pay. We certainly should not allow his threats to deter us from providing Ukraine with every weapon it needs to win. If Putin were to prevail, he would be emboldened to further aggression — and so would other rogue states such as China. We have to make clear that, as President George H.W. Bush said after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, “This aggression … will not stand.”