A Frustrated Putin is a Dangerous One

Main Image Credit Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in December 2021. Courtesy of kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

With signs that Moscow’s initial invasion strategy has not gone according to plan, the crisis in Ukraine has reached a critical moment.

It has not been a good five days for Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian resistance has been much stronger and more effective than he could have imagined. His own forces have been much less effective, sometimes almost absurdly so. And he has awakened a united Western response which none of us could have imagined would happen until very recently.

His first instinct will be to escalate: enforcing a siege of Ukraine’s major cities when they cannot be taken, increasingly indiscriminate use of fire from ground and air, and attacks on civilian infrastructure. But time is not on Putin’s side. Every day that he fails to pummel Ukraine into submission makes it less likely that he will achieve his maximalist objectives.

But a Putin in retreat could be just as dangerous as if he had taken Ukraine in a lightning offensive. The public announcement that Russia’s nuclear alert level was being raised was designed to send a message to NATO not to push Russia too far. In particular, it is a warning to NATO states not to get further involved on Ukraine’s side in this war. For their part, NATO leaders may believe that – as long as they refrain from direct involvement of their combat forces on Ukrainian territory – the chances of a NATO–Russia war remain minimal. This is probably right. But we would be foolish to take it for granted that Putin views the dividing line between war and aggressive competition in the same way that NATO does. The greater the volume of arms supplies, and the more consequential they are on the battlefield, the more that Russia may be tempted to interdict those supplies, even outside Ukraine’s borders. If NATO personnel – especially ex-military personnel – turn up in Ukraine, then this could well be viewed as the West’s own version of the ‘little green men’ tactics which Russia used in Crimea and Donbas. The more effective sanctions are, the more that Russia could see a threat not only to its occupation of Ukraine but to the very survival of Putin’s regime.

Every day that Putin fails to pummel Ukraine into submission makes it less likely that he will achieve his maximalist objectives

Even in a reasonable worst-case scenario, the chances of nuclear weapons use remain small – in part because of the nuclear forces of the US, UK and France, and in part because it is hard to conceive of a possible use which could yield military benefits that would exceed the profound reputational costs. But attempts to darken the nuclear shadow – creating a fear in NATO countries’ minds that Putin just might be crazy enough – could well be part of the playbook in the weeks ahead. Calm heads will be needed in response, and a clear NATO commitment to the fundamental objective of protecting and restoring Ukrainian independence and sovereignty. But it will also be important, when the time is ripe, to look for ‘off-ramps’ for Putin (or his successor) that allow for a de-escalation of what is now the most dangerous crisis Europe has faced since the 1980s.

The views expressed here are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Malcolm Chalmers

Deputy Director-General

Senior Management

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