As the war in Ukraine drags on, the available options remaining for Russian President Vladimir Putin are rapidly shrinking. Russia's military, plagued by its historical problems of poor training, inefficient logistics, and inflexible command structure, is incapable of defeating a Ukrainian army backed by the U.S. and NATO allies. Russian military stockpiles are dwindling, and Putin has had to request help from Iran and North Korea. The recent mobilization of more than 200,000 Russian conscripts, receiving between one to two weeks of preparation, will not shift momentum on the battlefield. More Russian men have fled the country in the days following the mobilization call than have been conscripted. However, the social and political price to Putin could be far higher. The war has now been brought home to Russians, and the zinc coffins, containing the remains of newly mobilized soldiers, have already begun arriving. The impact of the harsh economic sanctions will become more pronounced in upcoming months, putting additional pressure on Putin to demonstrate progress and some form of victory. As the pressure on the battlefield and at home mounts, Putin could turn to one of his remaining options: the use of a nuclear weapon.
Since the beginning of the invasion, Putin has used the nuclear threat to deter western support for Ukraine. Former president and prime minister Dmitri Medvedev has also been very vocal about Russia's potential use of nuclear weapons. This threat of a tactical nuclear strike from Russia is taken seriously in western capitals. U.S. President Biden recently said that such use would drastically change the conduct of war and could lead to "armageddon". A NATO official declared that a Russian nuclear strike would "likely lead to a physical response from Ukraine's allies and potentially from NATO." The Ukrainians, for their part, seem less concerned with such a threat, considering it a typical Russian ploy to weaken western resolve.
Putin's imposition of martial law in the illegally annexed Ukrainian regions is a further sign that Russia faces relinquishing its territorial gains in the face of Ukraine's counteroffensive. The threat of losing these territories, especially if Crimea comes under risk, may prompt Putin to employ a tactical nuclear weapon in a last-ditch attempt to change the course of the conflict. Whether the target of such an attack would be military or civilian is still open to debate. Ukrainian forces are not deployed in masses so a nuclear missile would have a limited military impact. A nuclear strike against key infrastructure might hamper Ukraine's ability to protect its population.
Nevertheless, western military experts do not believe that a tactical nuclear strike would dramatically alter the results on the ground, but it could have a profound psychological effect. Western governments and populations would see that Russia has crossed the Rubicon; the final barrier in warfare will have been removed. The conflict could no longer be contained to just Ukraine and Russia. A western (U.S. & NATO), and perhaps global, response would be required. Russia would have to be completely isolated both economically and diplomatically. It is unlikely that China and countries such as India, and Saudi Arabia, who have so far tacitly enabled Russia, would stand by Putin. World governments would need to cut off Russian energy and prepare their populations for short-term sacrifices until alternative supply chains can be established. The military response would come from NATO and its allies.
A nuclear attack by Russia should trigger direct military action regardless of the target. The general staffs of the U.S. and other NATO members have already likely devised a number of contingency plans to follow such a strike. The stated objective of the military response is to remove Russian forces from all illegally annexed regions and return Ukraine to its pre-2014 borders. Direct action into Russia proper is not part of the initial planning. Air and sea responses would occur first since preparing any ground force action takes longer. In general, however, a three-pronged approach might be the most effective.
First, U.S. and NATO fighter aircraft would need to establish air supremacy over Ukraine and the Russian-occupied territories. Initial targets would include Russian fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft systems in Ukraine. Anti-aircraft systems based in Russia may also need to be eliminated if they are against U.S. and NATO planes in Ukraine; this should be clearly communicated to Russia's military. Allied aircraft would then conduct missions to eliminate Russian command and control assets in Ukraine as well as target logistics channels (including the Kerch bridge) to hinder the resupply of Russian forces. This action should allow Ukraine's army to pursue more freely and quickly its counteroffensive activities with allied aircraft providing close ground support to eliminate Russian armor and artillery. Second, alliance naval assets, some of which are already stationed in the region, would neutralize Russia's Black Sea fleet. An ultimatum should be delivered to Putin, allowing him to withdraw or stand down his ships; otherwise, any Russian vessels engaging in offensive actions would be destroyed. Grain shipments from Ukrainian ports could once again begin flowing to destinations desperately in need of food. Third, if Russia failed to cease hostilities and withdraw its troops from all pre-2014 areas of Ukraine, an alliance ground assault would commence to link up with Ukrainian forces in the east and southeast.
NATO ground forces would advance along three fronts. Polish forces, supported by U.S. and Baltic troops, would move southeastward into Byelorus and head for Kyiv. Movement into Byelorus would be justified by that country's hosting and support of Russian forces. Russia used Byelorus as a staging area and launching point for its invasion in February and has continued to provide support to Russian troops. Byelorussian President Lukashenko recently announced that a new, joint regional force consisting of Byelorussian and Russian forces is being formed. Putin will likely request (more likely require) Lukashenko to join in the fighting to augment Russian troops. This movement would create an opportunity to remove Lukashenko as president. The presence of alliance forces might provoke another popular uprising against Lukashenko, with some Byelorussian military forces (outside of the security forces) choosing to join with the alliance troops. Support from ex-pat opposition leadership, such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, could help pave the way for a transition of power. From the west, U.S. ground forces backed by British and Czech units would move eastward through Lviv to link up with Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region. Due to historical considerations, Germany would not participate in ground operations. The Bundeswehr would provide logistical, medical, and training support. In the southwest, French units accompanied by Romanian and Bulgarian forces would move eastward through Moldova (removing Russian troops in Transnistria) towards Odesa and link up with Ukrainian forces in the Kherson region with the ultimate goal of Crimea. Depending on the pace of operations, U.S. units advancing eastward could be diverted to assist this front. Russian forces, who have struggled against Ukraine's army, would now face overwhelming firepower from the NATO alliance. Expected Russian resistance would likely crumble. Mass surrender not unlike that experienced by Iraqi troops in 2003 could not be ruled out. Hardcore fighters, such as those from the Wagner Group, would face heavy casualties.
The argument can be made that such a scenario would increase the likelihood of additional nuclear strikes by Putin, even against Western European targets. Having crossed the nuclear threshold already, what would stop the Russian president from using more nuclear missiles? The U.S. and its NATO allies could make additional nuclear attacks subject to a direct assault on Russia and/or a NATO nuclear response. Faced with such an eventuality, internal pressure on Putin, even from some of his inner circle, could serve as a check on future strikes. With his army incapacitated, Putin may have no choice but to withdraw or face the real threat of internal removal. Throughout Russian history, military defeats have often had dire consequences for Russia's rulers. The alliance could add to the pressure by supporting the Ukrainian position that any negotiated settlement be contingent upon a post-Putin government.
The desired outcome would be a reset of the immediate post-Soviet period. This time, the West and Russia will have hopefully learned the mistakes of the early 1990s and will work together to redesign a country with sustainable democratic institutions (true competing political parties, a shift away from Russia's traditional vertical power system, and an independent judiciary), an involved citizenry (unlike the 1990s, Russians have had some experience with how democracy works), and a more diverse economy less reliant on energy resources controlled by the state (substantive financial and intellectual assistance for medium and small business). In the end, the horrific use of a nuclear weapon might have a silver lining. Of course, there is hope that such an outcome can be achieved by other means, but time will tell.
Kenneth Maher earned an M.A. in Russian Area Studies and served as a U.S. Army military intelligence officer. He is also the author of "Wind of Change: An American Journey in Post-Soviet Russia". To learn more, follow Kenneth's blog at www.kennethmaherauthorbooks.com.