NUCLEAR WARGoing Nuclear

By Lawrence Freedman

Published 20 September 2022

Rather than fretting about the craziness of nuclear use, efforts might more usefully be put into preparing for the moment when Vladimir Putin realizes that he has lost and may seek to hold on to Crimea. At this time all the issues connected with ending this war – sanctions, reparations, war crimes, prisoner exchanges, and security guarantees – would need to be addressed. We may find it difficult to imagine that Putin can lose, and wonder about how well he will cope with his failed aggression, but it is entirely possible that at some point he will run out of options, and have to look failure in the eye.

Supreme leaders achieve their positions and then hold them by controlling events to their advantage. It is natural, therefore, to assume that even when they appear to have lost control, they will find a way to regain it. This assumption is behind the common refrain these days, even heard from people who would dearly like Vladimir Putin to fail, that he will not allow it to happen, that even at this late stage he will find something to do that will turn the tide of the war. That something will have to go beyond adding to the hurt and misery already caused, which we know he can do. It must also stave off Russia’s defeat and that is another matter. In addition, therefore, to speculating about what Putin might do next, we also need to ask what good it will do him.

Russia’s Way Forward
On Friday 16 September Putin spoke at a news conference at the conclusion of a conference in Uzbekistan. This conference was most memorable for evidence of Russia’s increasing isolation, even among countries that might have been expected to be more sympathetic. As there were visible signs of Central Asian states distancing themselves further from Russia, Putin was obliged to acknowledge that both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had concerns about the war.

Putin sought to explain how he would win the war. Asked about the Ukrainian counter-offensive he said: ‘Let’s see how it goes and how it ends.’ Then, asked if the war plan needed to be adjusted, he stressed Russia’s minimum rather than maximum objectives: ‘The main goal is the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas’. This is a narrower focus than the one with which he started and with which he was still toying a few weeks ago. He reported that the work to achieve this objective ‘continues despite these counteroffensive attempts by the Ukrainian army. The general staff considers some things important, some things secondary, but the main task remains unchanged, and it is being implemented.’ Perhaps he appreciates that Kharkiv is lost and Kherson may go soon. Certainly it informs the Russian offensive in Donetsk, which still continues, very much as before, despite the setbacks elsewhere.