Things have not gone to plan at the end of Day 6 of the Russia-Ukraine war. If Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he would be the recipient of a quick and decisive victory, he was wrong. Russian conscript soldiers were found wanting in their first taste of combat. Vehicles broke down or ran out of fuel. Logistic supplies could not keep up with the tempo of the Russian invasion. Soldiers found themselves out of communication with their units and confused about their orders and directions. Armoured columns drove into a hostile country single file on roads, unescorted by infantry – supremely vulnerable to Ukrainian Army anti-tank units. It is difficult to see this invasion work out well for Putin or Russia more generally.
There is always the possibility of a rally of Russian forces. Whether they have quickly learnt from their experience thus far and will correct course and develop more efficient and effective military operations and tactics is anyone’s guess. However, it seems that the shambolic initial offensive has had its effect. There seems no real ‘fight’ in the Russians. One wonders whether this is just among the conscripts or if this malaise has permeated the senior officer corps and professional military cadres. Considering that the financial strictures imposed on Russia have affected military personnel’s pay, it is hard to imagine that Russian Army morale is high.
Moreover, they are not true believers in Vladimir Putin or his vision of Russia. This situation poses a significant problem for Putin. If his officers can see the writing on the wall, why pretend to be loyal to the Russian President?
Perhaps it is here where the greatest danger lies. A dictator cornered can lash out in terrifying and unexpected ways. Putin’s recent call to place his nuclear forces on heightened alert suggests that he knows that his conventional military did not perform to expectation. Barring his imminent suicide, he has only one extra card to pull. Escalate to deescalate. This can take several forms, but we’ll just look at two possible routes he can take.
The first would be to escalate the war beyond Ukraine’s borders. This form of escalation can start non-kinetically through cyber-attacks. Once Russian infrastructure has been hit, Putin might be able to call upon the outrage of his public to strike back, whipping up a nationalist furore. It is far easier to do this against a foreign foe than to a foe tied to one’s own people by blood and culture. The problem with this is that such cyber-attacks are unlikely to stay contained. Indeed, if cyber-attacks result in the loss of life or critical injury of hundreds or thousands of people, strike and counterstrike may not stay in the realm of the internet, and one runs the risk of sliding into world war.
The second is the greater use of indiscriminate violence against Ukrainian civilians to break their spirit. Up to now, there has been a sense that Putin is keen on keeping civilian casualties low. Indeed, total civilian casualties as far as independent sources can say, are not particularly high for a war of this nature. This is ‘good’ but is unlikely to last. As the Russian Army continues to make slow progress on achieving its key objectives, such as capturing the critical cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, heavier and more destructive weapons will be used more frequently to terrify and kill as many civilians as possible. This tactic will depopulate the cities as more Ukrainian civilians pack up and flee to neighbouring safe havens in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The flood of refugees will cause the EU political, social, and economic problems. The larger the number of refugees, the bigger the problems. Stand-off weaponry such as cruise missiles, unguided gravity bombs, artillery, short-range rockets and thermobaric, or vacuum bombs will allow Russian soldiers to stay outside the cities while urban areas are laid to waste. Putin’s recent announcement that he has put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert is disturbing since it keeps the possibility of the Russian President ordering tactical nuclear strikes. A nuclear strike would be the most shocking action that Putin could take. However, in Russia, as in other nuclear-armed countries, safeguards prevent a political leader from just giving the order to drop ‘the bomb’. Such a decision would have to have the unanimous support of his defence minister and his chief of the general staff. If he had this, the effect would be immediate. Hypothetically the Zelensky government might sue for peace, NATO, and the EU, shocked at the audacity of this move, might be inclined to drop their overt support for Zelensky and for the idea of Ukrainian independence. Just as the Americans dropped two atom bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, a Russian attack could involve dropping two tactical atomic weapons. One for shock value and to test the resolve of NATO. A second to underscore the seriousness of the situation.
A Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine is a distant prospect, but that Putin put this possibility on the table ensures that we cannot rule this prospect out. Indeed, the worse his conventional forces perform, the higher the likelihood of a drastic turn of events, including thinking the unthinkable. Unfortunately, the West has given Putin no face-saving ‘off-ramp’ makes it difficult for him not to escalate to deescalate to solve his current strategic dilemma. Moreover, with any escalation, there can be many unpredictable outcomes.