After losing the battle of Kiev, Russian war criminal Vladimir Putin is trying to save military success in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. His army’s progress has been “slow and uneven,” and it is even before all the heavy weapons committed by the West reach the defenders. Once the Ukrainian armed forces have incorporated all their new equipment, they should be ready to launch a counter-offensive that can regain lost territory.
So what will Putin do? There is a widespread concern that he can not afford to lose and therefore will double. He could escalate either with more conventional military power or with chemical or nuclear weapons. Some still expect Russia to win in one way or another. “If Western leaders believe that their arm’s length encouragement of Ukraine will lead to a Ukrainian military victory, then they are fatally misinterpreting Putin’s intentions and determination,” writes a British journalist and former “Kremlin consultant.” That article sounds like it’s from February, but it actually ran in the Guardian last week.
A scenario presented by analysts is that Putin will use the celebration of Victory Day on May 9 in Red Square to commemorate the end of World War II to announce an expanded war effort in Ukraine. After previously trying to publish the invasion as a “special military operation”, he could now declare war and announce a total mobilization in the style of World War II. He could imagine crushing Ukraine with far more tanks and troops. But it will risk social unrest and will probably still not deliver victory.
Russia is a large country (population 144 million), but Putin does not have a large pool of trained military personnel available. Russia convenes about 260,000 men a year in two drafts, in the spring and fall, for a period of one year. But even if Putin were to send conscripts to Ukraine (which he promises he will not do), they would still require at least four months of training – and even that would produce unmotivated, low-quality troops. Russia’s best units, made up of contract soldiers, have performed abysmal. Conscription-heavy forces would do even worse.
On paper, Russia has more than 2 million former soldiers in reserve, but according to the Institute for the Study of War, few of them receive refresher training. A 2019 Rand report showed that only 4,000 to 5,000 reservists would be considered comparable to the U.S. National Guard or reserve members. In 2021, the Ministry of Defense launched an initiative to expand the reserves to 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers, but there is no indication that this ambitious goal will be achieved.
Even if Russia were to throw a large number of poorly trained conscripts into battle, it would have a hard time equipping them. The Russians claim to have more than 10,000 tanks and 36,000 other armored vehicles in stock, but most are probably obsolete and dilapidated. Russia is losing its best military equipment in Ukraine and will find it difficult to make replacements. Western sanctions stifle Russian military production lines by stopping the flow of microchips. The Russian military, for example, lacks precision-guided ammunition.
And even if Russia could provide many more low-quality troops equipped with obsolete equipment, it would have a hard time supplying them. Russian logistics have not been able to keep up with an invading army that originally numbered about 150,000 men. How would they deliver greater strength? More Russian troops would simply create more targets for all of Ukraine’s modern weapons.
A more frightening scenario would be if Putin were to use chemical or especially nuclear weapons. Russian propagandists regularly threatens to wage nuclear war if their forces lose in Ukraine, and Putin himself engages in the nuclear saber-rattling to intimidate the West.
The least likely scenario is the most apocalyptic: Russia attacks NATO countries with conventional or nuclear weapons. Putin is not suicidal, and he knows the US response would be devastating. A more limited use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainian bases or population centers is a little more plausible. Putin may start with a demonstration attack to terrorize Kiev to surrender. (Chemical weapon use is still more likely, but it would not be a game changer.)
President Biden needs to prevent that from happening by emphasizing that while in the current circumstances the United States will not fight Russia directly, all bets are off if Putin goes into nuclear power. Even without resorting to their own nuclear weapons, NATO was able to launch air strikes that would quickly sink the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet and destroy much of the Russian army in and around Ukraine. It would shake Putin’s criminal regime to its foundations.
We can not stop Putin from ruthlessly escalating, but we need to convince him that the price would be too high to pay. We should certainly not let his threats deter us from supplying Ukraine with all the weapons it needs to win. If Putin were to win, he would be encouraged to further aggression – and so would other rogue states like China. We need to make it clear, as President George HW Bush said after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, “This aggression … will not last.”