The world shifted this week. Vladimir Putin showed that he knows how deeply wounded he is. He knows that his rule is under existential threat if Russia is completely humiliated in Ukraine. He also showed the world that his strategy in this context is to escalate. He is signaling that his best bet for survival is to cast the war against Ukraine as a struggle against the entire West.
He’s like a wounded tiger, who in desperation, and knowing his strength is weakening, decides to go on the attack. This week, I learned a bit about how U.S. officials are thinking about this situation.
Putin’s wounds are now pretty obvious. U.S. intelligence officials believe it is unlikely that the Russian army in Ukraine will simply collapse. But they do believe that Russian forces are running out of steam and being badly beaten.
I’m told that somewhere between 80,000 and 110,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the past seven months. Russia has lost 50% of its prewar military tanks. It’s lost 20% to 30% of its infantry fighting vehicles and a tenth of its advanced fighter planes. The Russians have also burned through huge amounts of precision munitions. Morale is awful. Over the past weeks, most Russian forces have been on the defensive or falling back.
This terrible situation has induced not humility in Putin but audacity. In his speech to the Russian people this week, he portrayed the operation in Ukraine as a defensive measure against Western forces that want to divide and destroy Russia. He signaled that he considers Crimea part of Russia and will regard eastern Ukraine as part of Russia too. He’ll view attacks in those regions as attacks on Russia itself, especially if they are made by Ukrainian forces using American weapons. The crucial passage in his speech was this: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”
U.S. officials are now preparing for all the ways Putin could escalate the war, if he pretends Russia itself is being invaded. He could lob missiles onto American installations in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. He could escalate in space by destroying satellites. He could launch a missile strike against a NATO ally. And of course he could use a tactical nuclear weapon — perhaps on a Ukrainian town, on a Ukrainian military unit or just in an open field — to show he means business.
The intent would be to intimidate the West into ceasing all support for Ukraine.
U.S. officials don’t seem to know whether Putin will or won’t use nukes, but they are taking the possibility quite seriously. In their communications with the Russians, they are trying to convey that any use of nuclear weapons would put the world in a very different place. They are not talking about what their contingency plans are in such a circumstance, but they imply they are grave.
Overall, U.S. strategy is to help the Ukrainians defeat the Russian invasion, but slowly. The idea is to hit a series of singles, not go for a crushing home run. U.S. officials don’t want to self-deter — that is, be intimidated by Putin’s threats. One the other hand, they don’t want to trigger him into doing something rash. They don’t want Götterdämmerung, a situation in which a desperate Putin decides to pull the whole world down around him. They are trying to control the pace of the war so that Russia is pushed back from Ukraine gradually.
Controlling the pace of a war sounds really hard, but the weather will help. By late October and November, Ukraine turns muddy, and it is difficult to launch offensive operations. Over time, and maybe next year, the Ukrainians can gradually take advantage of their advantages: They are fighting to defend their homeland; they have a flexible, decentralized command structure; their air defenses have mostly prevented the Russians from doing combined air and land operations; and they have much better intelligence, thanks to Western assistance.
The West will continue to supply Ukraine with weapons, maybe even including tanks and advanced fighter planes. Those systems are apparently on the table.
The influx of up to 300,000 new Russian troops will probably not alter the basic momentum of the war. They will be ill trained and ill coordinated, and it’s hard to see how the conscripts’ morale would be any better than the morale of the troops already bogged down there. You don’t make a stupid war better by making it bigger.
The first American hope is that Putin will eventually do a cost-benefit analysis and conclude that his best option is to negotiate. The second American hope is that the Ukrainians will also do a cost-benefit analysis. They will realize that while they are winning the war, it is also nearly impossible to physically dislodge the Russian troops who are dug in in eastern Ukraine. They too will decide to negotiate.
If that happens, a territorial settlement will be reached, and the global rules-based international order will be reestablished.
My parting thought is that too much of Western strategic thinking ignores the Ukrainians themselves — what they desire. They are winning, passionate and filled with righteous indignation, and seem to be thirsting for the kind of maximalist victory that they apparently feel is within their grasp — including getting Crimea back. Why should the heroes of this conflict settle for a tepid, incremental approach and a partial win, and what happens if they won’t?
The Ukrainians’ efforts have demonstrated that liberal democracy and human dignity are causes people are still willing to fight and die for. They are showing that these ideas have great power. Unfortunately, tyrants are sometimes more dangerous when they are losing.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.