With his army on the back foot, is escalation over Ukraine Vladimir Putin’s only real option?
Vladmir Putin has a new problem. His invasion of Ukraine is not just bogged down. It’s going rapidly backwards.
Ukraine’s armed forces have launched two stunningly successful counteroffensives around Kharkiv in the nation’s east, and in the south near the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. Kyiv is now claiming to have recaptured some 2,000 square kilometres of its territory, with the potential to cut off and trap a sizeable portion of the Russian invasion force.
By the Kremlin’s own standards, this is hardly winning. Realising Russia’s war aims – including regime change and the establishment of a “Crimean corridor” that denies Ukraine access to the Black Sea – would require nothing short of a dramatic reversal of its fortunes.
Putin now essentially has three options.
First, he can seek a political solution, hoping to hold onto the territory Kremlin proxies captured in the eight years prior to his 2022 invasion. That’s an unattractive choice, especially since a bullish Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is hardly in the mood to negotiate favourable terms for Moscow. Internationally, it would be a humiliating blow to Russian prestige: a smaller state defeating a top-tier nuclear power in a major land war.
Domestically, and more worrying for Putin, it would sharply call his leadership into question. Mounting signs of domestic discontent now even include St Petersburg regional deputies publicly calling for Putin to be tried for treason, another group from Moscow calling for him to step down, and even state media questioning the conflict.
Option two for Putin is to try to reimpose a long and grinding campaign. But even if his forces can blunt the Ukrainian advance, Russia can achieve only a stalemate if the war returns to static artillery duels. That would buy time. It would wear down Ukrainian forces and allow him to test whether using energy as a weapon fragments the European Union’s resolve over the winter.
However, at Russia’s current rate of losses its conventional forces will be exhausted beyond about 12 months. Both NATO and Ukraine would be well aware of that.
Putin’s third option is to escalate: to send a message to both the West and Ukraine that he means business. Given the dubious nature of his other choices, that may be increasingly likely. But where? And, of equal importance, how?
Numerous experts have claimed Moscow might seek to annexe Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestria, plus further chunks of Moldovan territory. And in early September, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned of armed conflict if Moldova threatened the 2,000 Russian troops guarding Transdniestria’s large ammunition dump at Cobasna.
An actual invasion would be difficult, because it would require Russian control over the Ukrainian city of Odesa for land access. But an airborne reinforcement of its Transdniestrian garrison might be tempting, or launching a hybrid warfare campaign to justify doing so.
In April 2022, there were several “terrorist incidents”, including the bombing of Transdniestria’s Ministry of State Security, as potential pretexts for such a move.
That said, invading would arguably be counterproductive, not least because it may prompt Moldova’s close partner Romania – a member of NATO – to become involved.
Send a ‘stabilisation force’ to Kazakhstan
Although unlikely, a Russian incursion into Northern Kazakhstan to “protect ethnic Russians” was commonly nominated by Russia-watchers playing grim games of “where does Putin invade next?”. Or, at least, they did before Ukraine.
Russian forces under the banner of the “Collective Security Treaty Organization” (CSTO), comprising some of the former Soviet states, actually intervened as recently as January 2022 at the request of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
However, that was soon exposed as a ploy to help Tokayev defeat his enemies. Since then, he has drifted towards neutrality on the war in Ukraine.
A new Russian intervention would certainly reinforce to restive Central Asian states that the Kremlin sees the region as its privileged sphere of influence. Indeed, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently hinted that northern Kazakhstan was next on Russia’s invasion list. Yet, with many of its forces already tied up in Ukraine, it’s questionable whether doing so would really be worth the effort.
The significant losses suffered by Russian forces might be covered by putting the nation on a war footing. A general mobilisation would direct the economy towards military production, and provide an unending stream of personnel.
Putin has avoided this so far, choosing a shadow approach instead, which has called up an extra 137,000 Russians.
It does remain a live option, although it would mean admitting the conflict is a war (not a “Special Military Operation”), which would be domestically unpopular and result in untrained and ill-equipped conscripts flooding the front line.
Draw NATO in
Apart from the Moldovan scenario, Putin might elect to stage a “provocation” against a NATO state like Estonia. That would be a risky gambit indeed: given what we have seen of the performance of Russia’s conventional forces, even a limited war with NATO would hasten Russia’s defeat, and thus far Putin has assiduously avoided such provocations, apart from bluster and rhetoric.
Perversely, that might allow Putin to salvage some domestic pride by claiming he lost to NATO rather than Ukraine.
Yet his propaganda machine has already been falsely claiming NATO is directly involved in the fight against Russian forces.
And if Putin isn’t prepared to initiate a peace process, then really only one escalation pathway remains.
Read more: Russia is fighting three undeclared wars. Its fourth – an internal struggle for Russia itself – might be looming
Arrange a radiological ‘accident’
The Kremlin has obliquely hinted at this for a while.
Russian forces have controlled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant near the city of Kherson since March, turning it into a military base. Rocket and artillery fire is actually not a huge concern, since the plant is heavily hardened.
But if the plant loses connection to the Ukrainian grid – which has already happened several times – the reactors are only controlled by their own power generation, with no fail safe.
Arranging a false flag “accident” blamed on Ukraine is certainly possible, raising the nightmare prospect of a new Chernobyl.
Use tactical nuclear weapons
Look, it’s unlikely. But it can’t be ruled out.
Realistically, using tactical nuclear weapons would be of dubious military value. There would be no guarantee NATO would back down, or that Ukraine would capitulate. It would be very difficult for Russia’s few remaining partners to continue supporting Putin, either tacitly (like China) or indirectly (like India).
Indeed, while much has been made of Russia’s supposed “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, involving using nuclear weapons to force others to blink, there’s plenty of evidence it’s a myth designed to increase fear of nuclear war among Moscow’s adversaries.
In summary, Putin’s choices remain poor, both domestically and internationally. He may soon feel forced to pick between those that are unpalatable, and those that are risky.
Unfortunately, identifying what he will choose is guesswork: we simply don’t know enough about how Putin’s mind works, or how he prioritises information to make decisions.
But perhaps there’s one hint. Throughout his tenure, Putin has consistently invited NATO and its allies to blink. At this crucial time, the West owes it to Ukraine, and for the sake of its own credibility, to ensure it does not give the Russian president what he wants.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Matthew Sussex, Australian National University.
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Matthew Sussex has received funding from the Australian Research Council, the Lowy Institute, the Carnegie Foundation, and various Australian government agencies.