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Today all options for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine are bleak. Ukraine’s successful offensive on two fronts was launched in September. However, the offensive will not end the war and Kyiv must regroup forces, resupply, and renew troops while Moscow tries to consolidate defensive positions. Most likely, the autumn mud will complicate maneuvers, and the summer war of attrition will resume in winter. While Russia went on the defensive, the battle for Donbas continues to devastate both sides, and Kiev is dependent on Western arms and funds to capitalize on the success of its offensive.
Putin started the war assuming that his military advantage was more than enough for the maximalist option he chose; underestimating Ukraine was a painful mistake that could eventually cost him power. That is why Moscow has followed the doctrine of escalation in Ukraine. To avoid defeat, it escalated from low-intensity interventionism to all-out war and war crimes. And it will continue to escalate even though more Russians have already died in Ukraine than the Soviets fell in ten years of war in Afghanistan. On September 21, Putin announced a “partial mobilization,” which clearly showed how unpopular his Ukrainian war is with much of the Russian population. And Russia has not even declared the conflict in Ukraine war, formally calling it a “special operation,” so a full mobilization is not possible for now.
Putin’s escalation would eventually require full mobilization to regain the offensive with new formations, capture Odessa, control access to Transnistria, attack Kyiv, and hope to subdue Ukraine and Belarus and annex the eastern and southern Ukrainian territories to Russia. For that, Putin needs to declare war, and for his war to have support, he would need to point to an existential threat for Russia and the overwhelming majority of Russians to believe him. At the moment, he invokes attacks on his forces in Crimea as attacks on Russia and blames Kyiv for the murder of Darya Dugina. But, despite censorship, it is clear that this time Putin’s war is unpopular and total mobilization is a major political risk.
The only alternative for Putin to escalate the war without full mobilization would be tactical nuclear weapons. And he can use them if the West does not display a strong will in nuclear deterrence. So far, Washington has ignored Moscow’s nuclear threats against Ukraine. This is a mistake. Instead of dismissing the possibility of attack as a blunder, Washington could firmly warn Moscow that because of its Budapest Memorandum commitments, it would give full defense support to Kyiv in the face of a Russian tactical nuclear attack. That may not be enough, but the complete absence of credible nuclear deterrence is not a reasonable option.
Though not necessarily for Putin, the best option for Moscow would be a “strategic pause” that freezes the war. Already Putin gave the first hint in this direction by holding referendums in the occupied territories of southern Ukraine, not to join Russia like those in Crimea, but to declare independence as the so-called Lugansk and Donetsk Republics.
Kyiv would hardly accept freezing this war through a ceasefire after the consequences of something similar, which in the 2014 war concluded in the infamous – Ukraine – Minsk agreements. But Kyiv could be forced by Washington to accept a de facto stalemate for a war that has been resumed and interrupted locally, again and again. But Russia’s exit from the war against Ukraine, even without withdrawing from all occupied territories, today seems to require Putin to lose power, which is not impossible. Still, there is no sign that it would occur immediately.
In the meantime, one way or another, Putin will continue to try to go down in history as the great integrator of “all the Russias” because, although he is no longer betting on Ukraine’s unwillingness to defend itself, he will continue to bet that the West’s military and economic strength will eventually be held back by its domestic political weakness.
Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros