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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.








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Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Facing mounting troubles in his ill-advised invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists this week. The action is one step removed from a full mobilization impacting all of Russian society, which would likely disrupt the up to now mainly passive acceptance of the war, and Putin's support, within the country. The mobilization, however, is clearly escalatory and increases the potential risk of further widening the active participants beyond Russia and Ukraine. The additional 300,000 reservists will have little short-term impact on the battlefield. Still, they could be decisive if Russia properly equips and trains them, tipping the balance back in Russia's favor as the conflict drags on. This fact might require the U.S. and its allies to strengthen their support beyond money and military equipment to include American and NATO forces. The result would be an international conflict not seen since 1945.



Russia's actions have historically contributed to the start of several international conflicts. In the 1850s, Russia's intransigence and desire for imperial expansion escalated from a dispute over religious minority rights into a global conflict concerning Crimea. Russia faced off against the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey), supported by Britain and France, which wanted to prevent Russia from expanding into the Mediterranean region. The churches involved settled their disagreement, and Britain brokered an agreement addressing the remaining concerns of the French and Russian rulers. Russian Tsar Nicolas I, however, refused to accept an Ottoman proposed change. Russia deployed its armed forces into the region, which prompted the other powers to respond. The three-year-long Crimean War resulted in a defeat for Russia, which suffered from severe personnel and logistical problems (sound familiar?). The defeat was a significant blow to Russia, both financially and politically. The war bankrupted the Tsarist regime, and the loss of prestige among European countries led to several key reforms, such as the abolishment of serfdom, changes to the court system, and a push to catch up with European improvements in industry and social norms.


With Europe on the edge of war after the assassination of the Austrian Empire's Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, it can be argued that it was Tsar Nicholas II's decision to announce Russia's mobilization that provided Germany with the green-light to declare war and initiate World War I. In response to the assassination, Austro-Hungary issued a scathing ultimatum to Serbia, which it held responsible for the attack. Serbia refused to abide by the ultimatum which Austro-Hungary had expected. In July, the Austrian army began to shell Serbia's capital, Belgrade, in an attempt to punish the Serbs. Russia, which saw itself as the historical protector of fellow Slavs, came under increasing pressure to aid Serbia. Beyond fraternal considerations, however, Russia also had designs on expanding its influence in the Balkans, which Austro-Hungary dominated. Russia considered it had the military might to defeat Austro-Hungary but was wary of Vienna's alliance with more powerful Germany. It was believed that German Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his approval to Vienna before the Austrians started shelling Belgrade and that Germany would support its southern neighbor in a conflict against Russia. Russia's confidence was boosted via its alliance with France, which, in the event of war, Russia expected, would open a second front against Germany.


Throughout July 1914, numerous communications traveled between St. Petersburg and Berlin in an attempt, genuine or feigned, to avoid escalation of the hostilities. Tsar Nicholas II, an indecisive decision-maker, was informed that in case of war, due to the country's poor logistics infrastructure, it would take more than a month to mobilize the Russian army, which stood at just under 1.5 million men. Fearing Russia would not be ready in time if Germany decided to support Austro-Hungary, Nicholas ordered the Russian army "on alert" on July 25th. The action prompted Germany to put activate its pre-mobilization plans. Austro-Hungary's formal declaration of war against Serbia on July 28th added pressure on Russia to react. Five days later, on July 30th, Tsar Nicholas II approved the full mobilization of the Russian army. The announcement was accompanied by a statement indicating that Russia would not attack if peace talks were opened. Germany, on the other hand, submitted to Russia an ultimatum demanding that Russia cancel its full mobilization within 12 hours or face war. Having received no response from St. Petersburg, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, followed several days later by Austro-Hungary. World War I had commenced. Despite early success, Russia's lack of competent military leadership combined with poorly trained and equipped troops eventually led to massive losses. These defeats played a significant role in Tsar Nicholas II's decision to abdicate the Russian throne in 1917, opening the way for the Bolshevik Revolution and the founding of the Communist state.


The Soviet Union played a vital role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The Russian Federation continues to enjoy the well-deserved praise for the USSR's contribution to that victory. Often overlooked, however, are the Soviet Union's actions leading up to the start of the war. In the interwar period, Soviet Russia under Stalin maintained warm military and economic ties with Germany. Stalin permitted the German army to use Russian territory to conduct training exercises prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was able to reconstruct the Luftwaffe so quickly in the 1930s, largely due to its ability to train pilots using Russian territory. Aware of Hitler's hatred of Communism, Stalin chose to try to appease the Nazi Fuhrer by supplying the raw materials needed to rebuild Germany's industry. Stalin, consumed by his internal purges in the 1930s that decimated much of the professional officer corps, realized that his country was unprepared to oppose a German military strike. Stalin hoped to delay German aggression until he could rebuild his military might, which was expected by the late 1940s. Hitler's ambitions, however, would not wait.


The Munich Agreement, signed in 1938, was intended to end Germany's other territorial desires and prevent an all-out European conflict. The agreement concluded primarily between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler did little to reassure Stalin. In the summer of 1939, the Soviet leader began a series of communications with the French and British governments concerning a possible alliance against Nazi Germany. The discussions dragged on over the summer, with the western powers wary of the Soviet Union and not wanting to risk antagonizing Hitler to break the deal reached in Munich. In late August, Stalin's patience ran out, concluding that striking a deal with Germany could buy him time to prepare for Hitler's eventual attack. After two days of talks, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany stunned the world by announcing on the 23rd of August that the two nations had concluded a non-aggression pact. The pact secured the continued supply of raw materials from Russia and freed Hitler from any lingering hesitation about fighting a two-front war, which had been disastrous for Germany in the First World War. Hitler invaded Poland a little more than a week later, on September 1st, initiating a second global conflict. Per a secret clause in the pact, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the East, meeting up with Nazi forces near Warsaw several weeks later. Stalin's gamble did not pay off long when on June 22, 1941, Hitler, now controlling most of Europe, turned his sights on the Soviet Union and sent his troops into Soviet territory. By early winter, German forces stood less than 20 miles from Moscow. Only a severe miscalculation on Hitler's part saved the USSR from defeat.



Will Putin's partial mobilization have similar consequences? The hope is that history will not repeat itself. Russia's military performance in the war in Ukraine, hampered by historical problems of poorly equipped and trained troops coupled with inadequate logistical capabilities, should give Russia pause before potentially broadening the conflict. The risk of escalation to a nuclear level may also have a dampening effect. Unlike in past conflicts, Russia no longer has the hordes of available men to send to the front and overwhelm an opponent. Russia is a declining power demographically, which may partially explain Putin's decision to want to win now. The future is not on Russia's side.



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.

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Russia's continued assault on Ukraine is a stark reminder of Russia's historical policies to subjugate ethnic minorities into its empire, whether Russian or Soviet. The Tsarist empire and the USSR comprised more than 80 nationalities, most of which were incorporated by military or other coercive means. Tensions among these different nationalities and Great Russians, who make up the majority of Russia's population, were a constant struggle for Moscow's leaders to control. These pressures were a major contributor to the rapid dissolution of the Soviet Union since the policies of glasnost and perestroika in the mid-1980s allowed various ethnic groups to openly express their past grievances and desire for independence.


Vladimir Putin's desire to "put the genie back in the bottle" will face serious resistance, as evidenced by Ukraine's fierce reaction to Russia's invasion. Other former Soviet republics, some of which are now NATO members, are rightfully wary of Russia's aggressiveness and are strengthening their defensive abilities.


The newly published book, "Wind of Change", takes place in Russia shortly after the fall of Communism, when the country's ethnic groups experienced greater autonomy from Moscow. Several stories in the book concern an American's travel in Tatarstan, an ethnic minority region of Russia that had considered becoming an independent state in the early 1990s.


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