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Editor’s Note: James Nixie is director of the Russia-Eurasia Program at Chatham House, specializing in relations between Russia and other post-Soviet states. He previously worked as an investigative reporter in the Moscow Tribune. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinions on CNN.
Russia is losing its war against Ukraine. It hasn’t been defeated yet. But it is heading in that direction and President Vladimir Putin has fewer and fewer cards to play.
The combination of recent battlefield defeats and Western resolve – in particular, a realization that Europe can get through the winter without Russia’s usual energy supply volumes on its reserves, and Western politicians not taking a U-turn and admitting defeat Want – Russia has been dealt with one-two punch.
Its perceived military might and its status as an energy superpower to which Europeans were accustomed was widespread, and it turned out to be, incorrectly, considered Russia’s strongest asset.
Therefore, Putin, an extremist who has been horribly misled by his sly subordinates about Russia’s true capabilities, is forced to continue with his latest nuclear threats in a ‘twist’ – card language ( He’s been doing it for 15 years), and with his half-baked, but less politically risky, partial mobilization of reportedly 300,000 reservists.
It certainly threatens the use of nuclear weapons, which gives Western decision makers pause and in some cases staggers – as it is intended to do. After all, this is not to be taken lightly from a state that has turned to fascism and possesses more than half of the world’s nuclear weapons.
Yet a growing majority of Western and now non-Western powers are realizing that nuclear blackmail cannot be surrendered, and that the consequences of Russia winning the war will have long-lasting debilitating effects on European and global security. . Many world leaders may wish to make concessions over the heads of Ukraine’s leaders. But it is politically awkward to do so when attackers and victims are so clearly separated from each other. And when Russia is running away.
Whatever the case, recent research published by Chatham House suggests that Russia’s limits to the use of nuclear weapons are very high. There are procedures and procedures in place in the professional Russian military cadre, which means there are a lot of investigations and speed constraints before considering the use of nuclear weapons.
It is one thing to threaten a pre-emptive nuclear strike, but serious people in key positions in Russia know the consequences will be extreme – not least that it will bring many more countries to war with more weapons. Deployment of a nuclear weapon is not impossible – it is an inherently unsafe situation – but it remains impossible.
All this said, many Western politicians are still afraid to call for a real defeat of Russia – fearing the consequences of either a desperate dictator’s actions, or a furious Russia (with an even more extreme leader). The US, German and French leadership in particular are not courageous enough to explicitly call for it in Russia’s favor or despite the undesirability of accepting any outcome.
Instead they talk more vaguely about Russia’s crimes and supporting Ukraine (“as long as it takes,” said German Chancellor Scholz encouragingly). But they cannot envision a defeated Russia and speak ritualistically about the need not to humiliate Russia (or even Putin) – without making the connection that Ukraine should maintain its territorial integrity. Successfully helping to restore it would greatly humiliate the Kremlin.
In fact, politicians have the right to fear a weak and humiliated Russia. But logic suggests that they should be even more wary of a strong and courageous person.
So, Putin’s address on Wednesday changes little – certainly not a Ukrainian determination, though presumably it fears the Russian population being caught up in the draft. Many Russians still support her (or are at least bisexual), but most, too, do not want to fight.
Similarly, Russia will still have little influence if the referendum is to be held in parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region. In fact, these ‘votes’ are not even designed to give a veneer of legitimacy as with many other Russian ‘elections’. That’s a big question, but the most enthusiastic Putin is about to apologize. At best, the referendum could offer broad Russian mobilization and the case that the war is now being fought on Russian territory – thus justifying the new reservists push and their inevitable sacrifice.
Putin’s likely next move, as he seeks new ways to shift the dial back in his favor, would be conventional weapons attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and a ‘traditional’ hybrid war against the West – the real one in his eyes. Enemy (according to his words).
This is to be expected. Russia is down but not out. The Red Army fought poorly against Finland in 1939 and was pushed back by the Nazis in 1941. But they regrouped and came back firmly in the later stages of the war. More recently, in Chechnya in the late 1990s, Russia changed this (somewhat by increasing brutality) after a ‘poor’ start. This is not the time for Western complacency.
Putin’s regime is externally stable. Only hairline fractures are currently visible (weird mid-level defection, the occasional subtext of discontent with their outer circles, and of course this latest announcement itself).
But the more defeats he is given, the more his military commanders will lose faith in him – to an extent that they haven’t already. This would be the best outcome – a change of governance from within, not at the hands of the West or its policies. And it’s not out of reach. This war will bring Putin down.