The current view from the Kremlin is not pretty. After initiating a foolish war of choice with neighboring Ukraine, Russia’s conventional military strength has been sapped. As a result of Ukraine’s unprecedented and ongoing military success, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had to do the one thing he had thus far refused to do: escalate the conflict by calling up his reserves.
Until now, Putin’s regime had insisted the majority of Russians supported the war effort. But the stakes were relatively low, since many people were not impacted directly by the war. Now, as the new mobilization commences and the Russian position in Ukraine is faltering in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks, Putin is about to see just how deep—or, more likely, how shallow—the support for his war really is among the people.
Russia’s capacity for suffering may be legendary, but even the Russians have their limits.
Putin’s apparatchiks have delighted in highlighting for the public how Russia’s economy has not collapsed in the face of intensified sanctions the West imposed in the wake of the invasion. Russia is the world’s largest nation in terms of land and sits atop vast mineral and natural resources. The Putin government has done an able job of exploiting its natural resources to become a major energy exporter and agricultural superpower. Russia’s natural resources have become essential for Europe’s economy.
Naturally, Russia’s aggression prompted European governments to cut off Russian energy supplies until Moscow ends hostilities. Instead, nations like China and India have stepped in to pick up Russia’s excess capacity—helping ensure that Russia’s economy and its war machine grinds on, despite sanctions and embargoes.
Russia’s Economic Woes
After several months of dealmaking with New Dehli and Beijing, however, the Indians and Chinese have started to balk at subsidizing Russia’s Ukrainian misadventure. To Putin’s credit, he has skirted a complete economic collapse that many Westerners predicted in the wake of intense sanctions. The fact that the war has lasted this long—and does not appear to be ending any time soon now that the Western-backed Ukrainians are pushing back hard—means Russia’s economy has plenty of time to implode. Viewed in this light, Putin’s management of the Russian economy appears more like coasting on inertia and much less of a deft reorientation of the nation’s economic and trading policies.
According to a comprehensive Yale University study, things are about to change. The Yale economists predict Russia’s economy will collapse within the next six months absent drastic policy changes. That, coupled with the growing unpopularity of the war at home (unpopularity now being exacerbated by Putin’s desperate conscription order), would spell the end of Putin’s regime.
While Western observers may be dreaming of precisely such an outcome, remember that the enemy gets a vote. Putin understands the stakes better than anyone. He knows what happens if he fails in Ukraine and his economy implodes: He’ll be overthrown and likely wind up with a bullet in his head.
So, Putin is unlikely to abandon his drive for the total destruction of Ukraine. He has shown in the past year that he is willing to escalate militarily—and to keep doing so until he can change the facts on the ground and the fight to his favor. He may never be able actually to win, but Putin cannot be seen as losing. If his latest gambit fails, Putin will seek another solution that strikes directly at the Western powers supporting Ukraine—especially the United States.
With no good options left, Putin would not hesitate to use nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction against Ukrainian targets.
Putin’s Changing Nuclear Calculations
For Putin’s forces to have a chance in effectively using WMDs against Ukrainian targets, though, Russia would need to attack Western targets in space, cyberspace, and across the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. Russia’s goal is to divorce Western military support for Ukraine at all costs. Of course, there are several steps between that point and where we are today. But, it is imperative to see where these trends are headed. Remember that Russia under Putin cannot sue for peace under present conditions and Putin cannot be perceived as a loser by his people—but he is now being viewed that way.
As Russia mobilizes mostly unwilling citizens to go fight a Ukrainian force enjoying generous Western assistance and galvanized because they are defending their homeland, Putin will seek to pressure European governments with his energy lever. Countries such as Germany still need cheap Russian natural gas to heat their homes during what many are predicting will be an unusually cold winter. Putin will throw more troops into the meat grinder to slow the Ukrainians down and prevent them from pushing Russian forces out of Ukraine entirely. Meanwhile, he will insidiously attempt to divorce Europe from the United States (and therefore from Ukraine) by effectively freezing Europeans out this winter.
Despite his best efforts thus far, however, Putin has been unable to play the energy card in Europe as effectively as he believed he could. It is unlikely the Europeans will buckle, even as their own economies descend into recession and their people suffer in the frigid conditions of a European winter.
Coming out of what many are calling Europe’s “Winter of Discontent,” Putin will be in a bind. His war plans will have failed as will his strategy of breaking Western resolve by strangling Europe from critical energy sources. At that point, Putin is likely to escalate in a dramatic fashion.
Putin’s Risk of Overthrow Comes from Within
It isn’t just Western analysts who claim Putin’s personal and political survival depend upon success in Ukraine. Aleksandr Dugin, one of the most influential thinkers on the Russian imperialist Right, has made similar predictions about Putin’s longevity. Shortly before the bizarre attempt on his life in August (which resulted in his daughter’s death), Dugin predicted publicly that Putin’s regime would be taken down by the Ukraine War. The gonzo Russian geopolitical theorist called for Putin’s removal from power and argued his replacement should be an even more strongman who would finish the war with Ukraine by any means necessary.
The Russo-Ukraine War is likely to be to Putin’s rule what the Russo-Japanese War a century ago was to that of Czar Nicholas II: the triggering event that will lead to the regime’s destruction. Like that war a century ago, the Russians assumed they would easily defeat the smaller, upstart power. Instead, they are being routed. The blowback for Russia will be immense. The difference between then and now, however, is that Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons, and its leaders are moving to a place where they appear increasingly willing to use them.
Now is the time to prepare. America needs to deploy a rudimentary space-based missile defense while enhancing protections for its existing satellite constellations. Washington must prepare critical infrastructure for a massive cyberattack that will come once Putin decides he has no choice but to use nukes in Ukraine. Six to eight months is not a long time, but it is still some time. Our leaders have chosen to make war on Russia via Ukraine. We must now prepare for the consequences of those decisions while we still can.