Desperate and Dangerous: Managing Putin

Photo: The Russian army lost 3 tanks and BMP-2 IFV. The vehicles were damaged and later captured by Ukrainian forces. Credit: @UAWeapons via Twitter
Photo: The Russian army lost 3 tanks and BMP-2 IFV. The vehicles were damaged and later captured by Ukrainian forces. Credit: @UAWeapons via Twitter

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is showing a growing desperation as its war against Ukraine falls further into disarray.

Putin knows he is losing, and is doubling down on aggressive actions even as his strategic position weakens.

This means we are now entering the most dangerous phase of Putin’s ill-fated campaign. The United States and the West must manage this situation carefully. Instead of telling Russia what we will not do, we must make him concerned about what we might do. He does not want to make his war even harder by drawing us into it.

We must show strength to deter Putin (and the generals underneath him) from resorting to weapons of mass destruction or attacking NATO territory or forces, while giving the Ukrainians the means to fight and survive until Russia’s assault collapses.

The key to Ukraine’s survival is holding off Russian forces long enough for sanctions against Russia to have their impact, and for other patriotic leaders in Moscow to recognize the economic and military devastation Putin is inflicting on their homeland, and to stop it.

Putin’s desperation is evident. Consider the following steps taken in the past few days:

  • Shifting tactics from principally engaging Ukrainian military forces, who blunted Russia’s assault, to deliberately attacking the civilian population in an effort to break the will of the Ukrainian people;
  • Deliberately attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, and preventing repairs, in order to deprive the population of heat, electricity, and water;
  • Placing Putin’s own intelligence officers under house arrest — ostensibly to punish them for failures, but perhaps also with a view toward preventing a coup d’état;
  • Asking China for military support, and calling for the recruitment of Syrian and other mercenary fighters to join the war alongside Russia’s beleaguered troops; 
  • Mobilizing Russian forces from other locations, such as Abkhazia (Georgia), to reinforce Russian forces in Ukraine;
  • Threatening to attack NATO country forces helping to supply the Ukrainian military, in order to try to interrupt those supplies (which are clearly having an impact);
  • Raising the prospect of the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and by implication, threatening that Russia itself will do so; and
  • Firing long-range, sea- and air-launched cruise missiles at a Ukrainian base, Yavoriv, near the Polish border, which risked killing NATO country officers, or mistakenly hitting NATO country territory and thus invoking a NATO military response.

None of this is the action of a leader confident in victory. Quite the contrary, Putin is displaying all the signs of a man who knows that his gambit is failing. He is squeezed between a bogged-down military operation, on the one hand, and an economy in free-fall on the other. The last thing he wants is to make his situation even worse by dragging the US or NATO into the fight.

This points to two things.

  • First, knowing that his war is going badly, Putin will try everything possible to re-boot and to regain an advantage that is increasingly elusive, no matter the costs. This is a time of maximum danger. There are no limits, in terms of weapons systems, targets, tactics, or human suffering, which he will not cross in Ukraine. He may indeed resort to escalatory attacks, or the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), if he sees no other choice.
  • Second, because of this, Western support for Ukraine – and deterrence of Russia – is needed now more than ever. The key to Putin’s defeat is Ukraine’s survival. Everything must be provided to Ukraine as soon as possible – humanitarian aid, support for the energy sector, real-time intelligence, MiG-29s, A-10 ground attack aircraft, air-defense systems, shore-to-ship missiles, and additional anti-tank systems. Time is of the essence. Regarding deterrence, a warning must come from President Biden himself that any use of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons will be met with a forceful response. We must also spread information that Russia’s military leaders can and will be held individually responsible for any war crimes committed.

The Ukrainians are doing exceptionally well: repelling Putin’s ground forces, cutting supply lines, denying air superiority. They have proven themselves a capable force that can and does absorb Western military assistance. They have an iron will.

The West must prove itself equally capable: by supplying Ukraine and staring down Putin’s threats. Putin would like to win this war through intimidation. We must show that we are not intimidated, and indeed determined to ensure that Ukraine survives while Putin drives Russia’s military and economy into the ground.

Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.

March 15, 2022