The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West doesn’t want to push Putin toward using nuclear weapons. It might not matter.

Deterrence won’t be enough for a Russian leader who has never lost a war

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Opening Ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Beijing last month. (Sputnik/Via Reuters)
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Today the world worries about the fall of Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv. By summer we may be far more worried about the fall of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Western euphoria over the early Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion has somewhat masked the approaching grim reality. Russia has now introduced some of its most devastating weapons, curiously held back during the initial assault. Putin’s forces are indiscriminately hammering civilian targets in Kharkiv and Kyiv. The war has entered an uglier and bloodier phase, one we watch unfold on our phones. The next chapter for Ukraine will not end well; it’s more likely to feature a repeat of the horrors Russia unleashed on the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999 and the Syrian city Aleppo in 2016 — two broadcasts the West tuned out. After all, Putin has never lost a war.

But it’s crucial to consider what would happen if he did. It would not be a “victory.”

In the United States, we cheer the Ukrainian resistance under the defiant leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky but have not engaged militarily for one reason above all others: On Sunday, Putin put his country’s nuclear deterrence forces on alert. Hairs rose on the necks of every NATO official over Putin’s implied threat of nuclear retaliation. Fiona Hill, former ​​senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council​​, disclosed in an interview with Politico that when she was serving in the White House, Putin had seemed to threaten the use of nuclear force during a discussion with President Donald Trump.

When in trouble, Russia and its Soviet forerunners have always employed threats of nuclear war. This Sword of Damocles stokes fear at home and abroad, among officials and the public, and slows down the decision cycle of the United States and its allies. The knee-jerk reaction invokes the old Cold War paradigm: We should do nothing more to help the Ukrainians lest it trigger World War III.

When people encounter something they’ve never seen before, they fall back on what they know or introduce frameworks that feel more comfortable than uncertainty. Nuclear-deterrence-theory jargon such as “mutually assured destruction” fills social media feeds, and old theories about Soviet foreign policy drive American policy debate.

As a student at the U.S. Military Academy who was exposed to the full lineup of Cold War dogma while the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 1990s, I can tell you that nothing I learned in those classes matches what I’m seeing from Putin and Russia today. Putin should not be treated like the Politburo of the 1960s. Technology and money have transformed Russia over the past 30 years and have been essential vectors for Putin’s accrual of power. He’s lost his grip on both in just seven days.

Ukraine is winning the information war

The West has convinced itself that if it refrains from taking further military action, Putin will refrain from destroying Ukraine. During more than two decades as president of Russia, Putin has been consistent about his desire to retake former Soviet territories while persistently lying about his willingness to use force to achieve his goals. To Putin, the lives of Russian soldiers come cheap. Each war he’s won has been followed by another in his quest to be remembered in history as the one who reasserted Russia’s glory as a world power. What happens if Putin thinks he will lose in Ukraine? A loss there might very well lead to the end of his rule — but I’m willing to bet he will not accept his place in history as just another Russian leader who lost to the West.

Fast forward a month from today and consider what the situation might look like in both Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainians — likely hungry, undersupplied, lacking an air force and wearied from sustained bombing campaigns — may hold the line in hollowed-out Lviv or Kyiv, the West cheering them on while perhaps assisting foreign fighters trickling across the border. Inside Russia, reality will overtake domestic Russian disinformation as possibly 10,000 or more Russian men vanish on the front lines, and crippling sanctions lead to unrest.

Russian oligarchs and Kremlin leaders already know that their president has overplayed his hand, and Putin may need a swift victory in Ukraine. Why wouldn’t he use a nuclear strike to bring Ukraine to its knees and compel the West to succumb to his demands? The question that should terrify us is not just whether Putin will use nuclear weapons if the West does something, but also whether Putin would use them even if the West does nothing.

There’s no deterring a madman, particularly one who has already lost much of his fortune, and possibly his grip on reality. Reports suggest that Putin is isolated and angry; images from his meetings with foreign leaders and aides reinforce that notion. He publicly dressed down his foreign intelligence chief in a staged broadcast, and in every meeting he is positioned bizarrely far from other attendees. Rumors of his failing health, impossible to verify, have swirled the past couple of years, which might explain the intensity of his push to reclaim the historical seat of the Rus empire in Kyiv. These rumors would normally be dismissed, but Western leaders have echoed concerns that there’s something amiss. “I wish I could share more,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted, “but for now I can say that it’s pretty obvious that something is off with [Putin].”

How to prevent nuclear war: Give Putin a way out

The West must help repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that might mean providing an exit strategy for Putin that falls somewhere between exposing him to world humiliation and a coup inside Russia — both of which could bring about unprecedented scenarios involving nuclear strikes.

The Kremlin uses state-to-state diplomacy as a foil for its military maneuvers. Putin or his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, do not present options during negotiations but demands they know won’t be met, all the while resupplying and maneuvering their military forces.

I do not believe the Russian people condone the violence inflicted on Ukraine, and as their sons vanish in combat, the antiwar protests in cities will grow. Information that specifically connects with the Russian people inside Russia offers an opportunity for the West to de-escalate the situation. The Kremlin has fed Russians a steady stream of disinformation to justify the invasion of Ukraine, but do the people believe Putin’s stories? Interviews inside Russia suggest they are increasingly disillusioned. The West should use every digital means available to send the truth about the needless violence Putin has waged.

The Kremlin has sought for years to advance its propaganda and disinformation inside Western democracies; it’s time the West return the favor by amplifying the truth inside Russia. NATO and the United States do not need to produce propaganda; instead they and their populations can simply act as a relay for truthful reporting and on-the-ground videos that let Russian mothers know what happened to their Russian sons.

The United States and its allies should obviously avoid triggering a nuclear exchange, but we should also prepare for the possibility that such an outcome may not be in our control. Economic sanctions might work too well. Russian oligarchs displaced from Western mansions to their homeland dachas might act collectively to pursue regime change against an increasingly irrational and isolated leader. The West should aggressively assess what a Russian civil war or coup might look like and dramatically increase communication with Russia’s most Western-oriented business executives in the conduct of parallel negotiations to better understand the risk of political collapse in Moscow.

And above all we should consider what Putin would do to maintain his winning streak. I suspect it is anything and everything.