On Sunday, February 27, Putin announced to the world that he had put the 6,000 Russian nuclear weapon arsenal on “high alert.” This came after he made the statement a day or two earlier that any country that did anything to hinder his “special operations” in Ukraine “would face consequences you have never encountered in your history.”
So how scared should we be? Would Putin initiate a nuclear war that would result in tens of millions of deaths in Europe, the US, and in Russia and make parts of the planet uninhabitable?
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, I was obsessed with the thought of a major confrontation between Russia and the West. (See the one act play, “Armageddon,” in my previous blog post.) Today–Day 5 of the invasion–I was glued to the morning news shows as various experts were interviewed. The consensus at this point appears to be that Putin is simply saber rattling and intends to intimidate the West, not to destroy the planet, including his own country. But what if the experts are wrong? What if Putin has made a fatal miscalculation about how far the U.S. and our allies are prepared to go to support Ukraine? What if he feels backed into a corner?
From the news shows this morning, my conclusion is that Putin has already made many miscalculations. He thought the Ukrainian army would not fight fiercely. He thought many in Ukraine would welcome the Russians as liberators. He thought the leader of the country would be a pushover. He thought the Russian people would support his actions, and he believed that whatever sanctions the West imposed would be manageable, and the rest of the world would not really care since they would not have a dog in the fight.
Wrong on all counts. As of this writing, after five days of fighting, the Ukrainian army is still holding its own. The Ukraine population is overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion as ordinary citizens take up arms and make Molotov cocktails. Zelensky has become an inspiring, national hero. Hundreds of demonstrations opposing the Russian invasion, many large, have already occurred in Russian cities, and there are hints that even some of the oligarchs are questioning Putin’s actions. And the sanctions are already working causing the Russian stock market to crash, the value of the ruble to plummet, and banks to be shut off from international finance. Also, it is not just NATO that is unified in opposing the invasion, it is virtually all of Western Europe and the European Union, and many other countries throughout the world. Even Switzerland has stated that it will freeze bank accounts of wealthy Russians, the first time this action has been taken against anyone. While China remains silent as does India, no major country at the moment is actively supporting Russia. Belarus is Putin’s only friend. Putin is seen by the world as a pariah, and Russia is becoming shut off, isolated, and close to alone. China could aggressively come to Putin’s aid at some point, but this carries huge risks for China and has not happened yet. I do not see any scenario which would be the happy ending Putin is expecting.
So how will this movie end?
The happiest ending for the world is that Putin will come to his senses within weeks. Powerful oligarchs will realize that what Putin is doing is devasting to them and put pressure on Putin to find a way out of this mess. Others will also put pressure on Putin like some of the generals, who must realize that the price the army is paying is not worth it. Ordinary citizens will continue to protest, and more and more ordinary Russians, hurt by the failing economy, will voice their opposition. The fledging peace process, which began today, will become more serious and ultimately end up in a compromise of sorts. Ukraine could promise never to join NATO but maintain its status as an independent nation. Russia could declare victory over “Nazi elements” in Ukraine and keeping Ukraine out of NATO. Russia would cease military operations following an agreement, and casualties would be kept to a minimum. Sanctions would cease, and the world would breathe a deep sigh of relief. Life would continue on the planet Earth as we have known it.
The odds of the happiest ending happening are considered low.
What appears to be the consensus for the most likely scenario is that Putin will ultimately fail but only after a prolonged and bloody conflict. He will up the ante by using devasting bombs which kill tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens, perhaps many more. Zelensky is unlikely to survive in this scenario, but Russia is not able to declare a legitimate victory due to a robust insurgency like what happened in Iraq. But ultimately Putin will grow weary of the ordeal, his inner circle of oligarchs will rebel, his support from the Russian people will diminish, and Putin will have to give in, though calling the effort a victory by defeating “Nazis and druggies.” Sanctions will be lifted eventually, but considerable damage will have been done to the Russian economy, banking system and the quality of life for ordinary Russians. The world will recover but never be quite the same again.
The third scenario would be “retaliation lite.” Putin will fight back at the US and NATO using cyberwarfare and clandestine operations. Few have made much of this scenario, though to me it seems like a logical next step for Putin. We know the Russians are among the best in the world in cyberwarfare and that much of our digital infrastructure is vulnerable. Our power grid is perhaps the Russian’s easiest target. It is not too much of a leap to assume that Russia would try to make us pay for our opposition to the invasion in clandestine ways that could not easily be tied to Russia. Lights would go out routinely in cities or sections of cities. Large computer networks would be hacked. Transportation systems would be disrupted. Availability of food and gas would be unpredictable. Everyone would suspect it was Russia, but there would be insufficient evidence to pin these actions on them. Making the West and the U.S. uncomfortable would bring a certain satisfaction to Putin but would not tilt the playing field in Ukraine. The war would still go on as in scenario 2 and peter out eventually leaving a wake of suffering behind it.
The fourth scenario is the doomsday scenario or “Armageddon,” as I labeled it in my previous blog. Surprisingly, Putin put the nuclear option on the table a couple of days ago, at the beginning of the invasion, not after it had become evident that he could not win. Would he really use nuclear weapons? MAD or “Mutually Assured Destruction” has been the guiding principle keeping nuclear options at bay. Could the unthinkable happen now?
This depends in large part on what is going on in Putin’s mind. Could he deal with defeat with the satisfaction that if he fails, he will bring down the world with him? Is he playing with a full deck? Has the man gone nuts? When it appears that he ultimately is facing humiliation, what options are left for him besides the doomsday scenario if he wants to settle the score with NATO and the U.S.?
So, should we be scared? You are damn right that we should be scared. There is no happy ending for Russia under any of these scenarios. With the world ganged up against him and no allies that he can truly count on, he has few options. One option is to pull the nuclear trigger. If that happens, it is indeed a doomsday scenario. No one wins in a nuclear war. No one. God help us.