After Major Setback In Ukraine, 7 Options For What Putin Could Do Next
Negotiate? Stall? Double down? The Russian leader suddenly finds himself in front of a situation that offers no obvious good choices. Doing nothing, however, is not an option.
In just one week, the war in Ukraine has made a full about-turn. Ukraine’s armed forces went from an apparent slow ceding of land to launching two hugely successful counter offensives around Kharkiv in the nation’s east, and in the south near the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.
As of Friday, Kyiv claims to have recaptured some 8,000 square kilometers of its territory, taking back in a matter of days what it took Russia months to originally conquer.
By now, there is no doubt that Russia is in serious trouble. President Vladimir Putin’s tentative encounter this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his most important potential international ally, only confirms that his options for reversing the recent battlefield defeats may be rapidly shrinking.
In his leadership spanning some 20 years, the Russian President has faced some troubling military situations: Islamist militants in Chechnya and the North Caucuses in 1999 proved to be some of his toughest antagonists. In that instance, he chose to escalate with more force. He also notably doubled down with success in Syria, after the U.S. had stepped back.
His invasion of Ukraine is of a different order, though, even if he continues to refer as a “special military operation.” His very leadership and legacy is riding on the outcome. So in the face of severe military setbacks, it begs the question: what will Putin do next? Here are seven possibilities:
Regroup, targeted counterattacks
Since Sept. 10, when Ukraine began making serious head-way with its counter offensives, the overwhelming narrative on Russian State TV has been that Russian troops are performing a "peregrupirovka" (перегрупировка), they are "regrouping’"prior to commencing a new attack.
Indeed, Russia desperately needs to stabilize its frontline and put a stop to Ukraine’s advance, and many of the Kremlin’s usual supporters are proposing increasingly violent tactics as a result.
On Wednesday evening’s state TV show 60 Minutes, military expert Igor Korotchenko said: “This is a new reality, which is why we should be acting quickly, harshly and uncompromisingly. First of all, we need to scale up our strikes against critical infrastructure in such a way that one region after the next, one district after another, Ukraine is plunged into darkness...’
Such comments on state TV are often followed by discussions of the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which independent observers nevertheless still consider mostly bluster.
Serious doubts are growing about whether Russia has the ground forces or sufficient equipment to launch a new offensive, given how many casualties it has taken and how much hardware has been abandoned or destroyed in its frantic fleeing from reoccupied territories.
Thus targeted strikes that destabilize the enemy and halt its momentum may make tactical sense, though is well short of a long-term strategy.
Putting the country on a full wartime footing would come with domestic political risks.
This, however, would mean overhauling the official messaging in Russia on Ukraine and moving away from describing it as "a special military operation" with limited goals of "denazifying" Ukraine, to an open-ended, full-scale war.
Putting the country on a full wartime footing would come with domestic political risks, notably the potential for public backlash against a forced draft. On September 13, Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitriy Peskov,said that there was no discussion of a nationwide mobilization, though ominously adding “at the moment.”
The mobilization of Russia’s two million reservists is by no means a quick-fix solution: it would take months to have any substantive effect on Russia’s fighting strength on the front lines. At the current rate, they have weeks or even days to reverse the Ukrainian momentum, not months.
Wait for winter
Russia has famously taken advantage of winter in the past to defeat both Napoleon and Hitler, and Putin may well be hoping to bide his time and that by using energy as a weapon, he will manage to cause fragmentation of the West’s resolve during the cold winter months.
In response to the European Union’s ban of Russian coal and partial ban on Russian crude oil imports, Russia has sharply cut gas exports to Europe and threatens to ban all energy exports, a lever Putin has yet to pull. Towards the end of August, Reutersreported that Putin was aiming to “chokehold” Europe by withholding gas, and in so doing drain support for Kyiv.
Russian soldiers at a ceremony to commemorate victims of World War II held on Gulf of Finland
The window on that, however, may quickly close as Ukraine digs in its heels, bolstered by its success on the ground. At the Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum on Sept. 10, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that for negotiations to take place, Russia would need to withdraw to the original border that was in place on Feb. 24, before the start of Russia’s invasion.
Since then, Zelensky has hardly seemed in the mood for negotiations. Last Sunday, after Russia lashed out against Ukraine’s recent gains with increased artillery and missile strikes launched from the Black Sea, hewrote on Telegram in response: "Do you still think we are one people? Do you still think you can scare us, break us, force us to make concessions?... Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Without water or without you? Without you. Without food or without you? Without you."
When it comes to the negotiating table, Russia is also no longer coming as the powerful party: it is losing … badly. Russian liberal commentator, Maksim Kats,said that the only way Russia can try to regain its negotiating position is through "terror": “bombing of civilian infrastructure, public buildings and residential buildings … Putin cannot win on the front, but he can try to sow a reluctance in Ukrainian society to continue war.”
Russia’s precedent when it comes to "accidents" and "mishaps" is certainly a cause for concern. Remember the Ukraine strikes on the Saky airbase near Crimea? They weresupposedly the result of "poor handling" of military equipment. Or, when both sides were accusing one another of firing on the Zaporizhiya Nuclear Plant, Dmitriy Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said “accidents can happen.”
Russia’s precedent when it comes to ‘accidents’ and ‘mishaps’ is a cause for concern.
In the latter case, Russian forces have controlled the plant near the city of Kherson since March, turning it into a military base, and while rocket and artillery fire is not actually of primary concern, since the plant is heavily shielded, if the plant loses connection to the Ukrainian grid — which has already happened on multiple occasions — the reactors risk becoming unstable.
A false flag “accident” blamed on Ukraine looks like a real possibility, and risks escalating the state of war to another Chernobyl-level crisis. Such an event could force Ukraine to the negotiating table.
Resign, never say never
If he is ultimately a rational calculator, as some believe, Putin may also conclude that no good options are left — and resign. Unlikely, yes. But it is also undeniable that Putin has staked his leadership in the success of the war, no matter what he calls it. His decision to invade Ukraine cannot be undone
Local lawmakers in both St. Petersburg and Moscow have already called for Putin to be removed from power over his handling of the war. Municipal deputy Dmitry Palyuga from the Smolninsky District Council in St. Petersburgtweeted out a document calling on Russia’s parliament to remove Putin from power and charge him with high treason. State TV, the hot spot for Russian propaganda and fiery anti-Ukrainian rhetoric is also starting to show cracks.
Still the scenario for Putin calling it quits may itself carry more risks than sticking it out. Less than a month from his 70th birthday, the Russian leader has seen (from Serbia to Libya to multiple sub-Saharan African states) that deposed strongmen often end up dead or in jail.
Former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had a string of military victories over the course of his premiership (Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, Nicaragua), though he went too far when he invaded Afghanistan in 1978. This war was considered a key factor in the unraveling of the Soviet empire and the subsequent collapse of the USSR.
Putin, after his own victories in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Syria, is now coming under serious fire in Ukraine. How he responds may decide if his Russia is to suffer a similar fate to his predecessor’s. Yet Putin the rational calculator might also take note that Breshnev's own personal destiny was to hold on to his leadership for life, before dying in office of natural causes — and leaving others to clean up his mess.
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