Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine did not come as a surprise. The United States and its European allies learned last fall what Russia planned to do, and even publicized the Kremlin’s plans to the world. Even so, they failed to prevent Russia’s onslaught on its much weaker neighbor. Once they ruled out direct military assistance to Ukraine, deterring a Russia bent on controlling its neighbors and upending the post-1990 European security order was always going to be a tall order.
The same threats that failed to dissuade Russia from invading before—severe sanctions, military assistance to Ukraine, and beefing up NATO—are unlikely to compel Russia from changing course now. Instead, Washington and its democratic allies need to embark on a strategy of containment that increases the cost to Russia and eventually forces internal political change that brings the brutal regime of Vladimir Putin to an end.
The outlines of this playbook are familiar, first set out in the late 1940s by George F. Kennan, a senior diplomat in the Moscow embassy, and elaborated on in the pages of this magazine. Kennan argued that the Stalin regime’s paranoia and insecurities represented a clear danger to the West and called for steady, forceful counterpressure. But Kennan also believed the Soviet Union was weak and suffered from internal contradictions that would ultimately undo the regime. Containment took 40 years to succeed and involved plenty of needless mistakes by the United States—including launching the Vietnam War and backing the violent overthrow of a number of governments. But the policy ultimately unleashed forces inside the Soviet Union that led to the end of the regime.
A return to a robust policy of containment is now the West’s best option. The fundamental goal will remain the same as the old policy: to counter Russian expansionism, inflict real costs on the Russian regime, and encourage internal change that leads to the ultimate collapse of Putin and Putinism. Of course, it needs to be adapted to the realities as they exist today rather than those that prevailed at the end of World War II. In particular, Russia’s close ties to a strong and newly assertive China will have to be addressed proactively.
Still, Russia isn’t the Soviet Union, a military and ideological colossus nearly equal to the United States. Although it remains a nuclear power, its military is a shadow of its former Soviet self, and its economy is smaller than Canada’s, which has a quarter of Russia’s population. Meanwhile, the West has grown stronger. The United States retains unrivaled military power and has an economy 13 times larger than that of Russia. Europe, a defeated continent scarred by war and poverty after World War II, has emerged as a cohesive economic giant with a military that, although underfunded, enjoys significant modern capabilities to defend against a stretched Russian military. As a result, although a policy of containment will not deliver swift success or victory, its steady application in the months and years ahead should drive the necessary change in Russia within the next five to ten years.
An effective twenty-first century update of containment would consist of three main pillars: maintaining U.S. military strength, decoupling Western economies from Russia, and isolating Moscow. Together, these three elements will steadily increase the cost to Russia of continuing its expansionist policies, foment internal dissent and debate, and ultimately could force a change in governance. To be clear, such change must be driven internally—although the United States seeks an end to Putinism, this will occur only when the Russian people decide the time has come. Also, a return to containment will not lead to an immediate end to the war in Ukraine. That will require additional measures, including providing Ukraine with the military means it needs to defend itself and resist occupation if Russia succeeds in taking over part or all of the country. And it will require massive economic and humanitarian assistance to help the besieged population in Ukraine and those who have been forced to flee the country.
Although the United States and other NATO countries maintain significant militaries, two decades of European under-investment and U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and Afghanistan have left NATO profoundly unprepared for a return to a strong deterrent posture. The subordination of the Belarussian military to Russian command and the invasion of Ukraine mean that a new front line is being drawn from the Baltic to the Black Sea—with the eastern borders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania effectively marking NATO’s new eastern flank. As a result, NATO needs to move swiftly to defend the new front.
The alliance has taken steps to bolster deterrence in the East, but these moves fall short of what the situation demands. The United States has doubled its ground presence in Poland, to 9,000 troops, and sent air and naval reinforcements to other countries. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have increased their military presence in Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. NATO has activated its 40,000-strong Response Force for the first time, though current plans do not include full mobilization of the entire force. While these initial steps have strengthened the forces that were deployed East in the wake of Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, they amount to little more than a tripwire that will be unable to offer a robust defense if Russia attacks NATO territory.
NATO’s moves have fallen short of what the situation demands.
That is why a fundamental rethinking of NATO’s forward force posture is now necessary. NATO needs to deploy tens of thousands of troops, rather than the few thousand that have so far been committed. The most immediate requirement is to deploy two to three combat brigades to eastern Poland and southern Lithuania to defend the Suwalki gap, the 60 miles that separate Russian Kaliningrad and Belarus. If Russian or Belarussian forces were to connect these territories, the Baltic states would effectively be cut off from the rest of NATO.
Preparing for a long-term presence in the East will also require making significant investments in ports, rail lines, airfields, roads, fuel supply, and other critical infrastructure to improve NATO’s capacity to rapidly reinforce its troops. Moreover, given Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons, combined with the deployment of nuclear-capable and likely armed missiles in Kaliningrad and other parts of western Russia and possibly in Belarus, NATO will need to consider the adequacy of its nuclear posture.
None of this is to suggest that NATO needs to prepare for war. The point is that deterrence now requires greater visibility and forward presence than was the case before Russia attacked Ukraine. Whatever Putin may be thinking about forcefully revising the post-1990 security order in Europe, NATO needs to make clear that he cannot succeed. That requires a strong deterrent presence East and a major commitment to increase spending for the long run. Germany’s decision to spend 100 billion euros now and at least two percent of GDP on defense going forward is a big step in the right direction.
Although military strength is a core requirement of deterrence, it is not enough. Indeed, the forward deployment of military forces will initially reinforce the divisions in Europe—and would leave the peoples of Ukraine, the Caucuses, and indeed of Belarus and Russia, under Putin’s dominion. The West cannot allow a return of an Iron Curtain dividing Europe. That is why the new containment also needs a policy of economic decoupling and political isolation—measures that are designed to inflict ever increasing costs on Russia and force change from within.
The sanctions announced by the United States and its allies are an important first step. Russia has been effectively cut off from credit and financial support, and technology export controls will severely curtail imports into Russia. Meanwhile, sanctions on Putin, his cronies, and their families will leave them isolated in their dachas in Russia, unable to gallivant on their yachts in St Tropez or their London duplexes. Though many have criticized these sanctions as too little, too late, these critiques assume that their purpose is to stop Russia’s military advance. That was never going to happen. Instead, sanctions are designed to inflict costs over months and years to force a change of behavior.
The effectiveness of sanctions on Russia will depend on two factors. First, their sting requires that they be applied by as many countries as possible. The Biden administration has been right to walk in lockstep with Europe, even as it has engaged diplomatically for months to push for the maximum possible sanctions. It may make people in Washington feel good for the United States to announce a rash of sanctions, but unless others agree to follow, their impact will be limited. As the case of Iran has shown, coordinated sanctions from 2010 onwards produced a real nuclear agreement; the unilateral maximum pressure from the United States since 2018 has only led Iran to accelerate its nuclear program.
Europe gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia.
Second, energy is key. Former Senator John McCain once memorably described Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” But it is a big gas station, especially for Europe, which still gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Some countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Latvia are almost completely dependent for their gas heat and electricity on imports from Russia. Although restricting Russian oil and gas imports would hit the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on fossil fuel exports, the damage such restrictions would do to European economies would be grave as well. True decoupling will thus take years, not weeks or months, as Europe finds alternative sources of gas and reduces its reliance on fossil fuels as part of its climate change commitments.
Aside from military strength and economic decoupling, Russia will also need to be isolated politically. Its unprovoked attack represented a blatant violation of the UN Charter and international law and runs counter to Russia’s commitment not to change borders by force—a commitment Moscow repeated numerous times in European security declarations, including the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the Charter of Paris in 1990, and the Astana OSCE Declaration in 2010. And Russia clearly violated its explicit guarantee in 1994 to respect Ukraine’s borders and territorial integrity in return for Kyiv’s commitment to give up its nuclear weapons. There can be no return to business as usual with an outlaw regime.
To be sure, diplomatic channels need to remain open, as they were during the Cold War. But Russia’s normal engagement with the rest of the international community must come to an end. The International Olympic Committee’s recommendation that sporting competitions ban athletes from Russia and Belarus was the right call, as was the decision by FIFA and UEFA to ban Russian soccer teams from the World Cup and European championships. The isolation must extend well beyond sports, however. There is no place for Russia in the G20 and the diplomatic dance of European leaders heading off to Moscow that preceded Russia’s attack on Ukraine needs to cease. Aside from Russia’s complete and unconditional withdrawal from all of Ukraine—including the territory it has occupied and annexed since 2014—there is nothing to talk about. That includes suspending the strategic stability talks that were aimed at creating a predictable and stable relationship with Russia. No such relationship is possible so long as Putin is in power. "We will make sure that Putin will be a pariah on the international stage," President Biden declared.
At the same time, just as during the Cold War, there needs to be a concerted effort to engage Russian civil society. Inside Russia, opposition to the war is already surprisingly widespread, as evidenced by the demonstrations that erupted in recent days in more than 50 cities. As Russian soldiers return in body bags and sanctions begin to bite, that opposition is bound to grow. Russians will need access to accurate information, which Western governments can provide through social media, the internet, and broadcasting. People-to-people exchanges should continue. The United States has opened doors to refuseniks before. It can do so again.
To succeed, the new containment policy must be embraced by all Western allies—in Europe, in North America, and even in Asia. Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is keen to exploit divisions within and between democracies. It has interfered in elections for years and supported far right politics in Europe and beyond. It has used bribes and Western energy dependence to divide Europe. Putin saw the divisions within NATO sown by U.S. President Donald Trump during his four years in office, and the disagreements over Afghanistan and submarine sales to Australia that occurred since, as evidence that the West was weak and divided. Now, he likely thought, was the time to strike.
Putin was wrong. The West has been remarkably unified in its response. Even before Russia’s attack, Western unity within NATO and beyond had solidified. The Biden administration, perhaps learning from its Afghanistan stumbles, did a superb job of bringing its allies together by sharing information, consulting frequently, and demonstrating tough, determined leadership. The result has been significant: strong sanctions, bolstered deterrence, and total political solidarity with Ukraine.
To preserve this unity, the United States, which has once again emerged as a leader of the West, will need to carefully listen to allies and be willing to change course to keep everyone on board. There will be times when internal divisions will raise questions about the solidity of the coalition. During the Cold War, NATO seemed to be in perpetual crisis—except when it mattered most.
There is no place for Russia in the G20.
An important difference between the Cold War era and today is the status of China. No longer a bit player on the global scene, Beijing has emerged as the Washington’s biggest competitor and largest geopolitical challenger in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The Ukraine crisis emerged at a moment when the relationship between Russia and China has become particularly close. Their leaders have met 38 times since Xi Jinping became president of China in 2012, including most recently at the opening of the Winter Olympics. There, they issued a joint statement noting that their partnership had “no limits.” Far from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has blamed the United States and NATO for taking insufficient account of Russia’s security interests.
Beijing’s pronouncements, however, contained an undercurrent of unease with Putin’s moves. The joint statement was notably silent on Ukraine, and official statements have consistently stressed China’s principled commitment to sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations. China abstained on a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Russia, rather than joining Moscow in voting against. And Beijing has never recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, suggesting it may keep an open mind on the future of Ukraine. There is scope, therefore, for quiet diplomacy to gauge whether Beijing might be persuaded to help put pressure on Russia.
Even if Beijing has its doubts, however, it is hardly in its interest to help the United States against Russia. Indeed, Chinese leaders no doubt welcome the U.S.’s renewed preoccupation with security in Europe because it gives Beijing more freedom of maneuver in its own region. China is also likely to help alleviate some of the economic consequences of sanctions for Russia, though there are limits to how much it can do, especially on the financial side, where transactions largely remain the domain of western currencies from which Russia has now been banned.
Containing Russia will therefore require paying attention to China. One way to increase the West’s leverage over Beijing would be to strengthen the political, economic, and military ties between the advanced democracies in Asia, Europe, and North America. An expanded G-7, for example, could include Australia and South Korea as well as the involvement of the heads of the EU and NATO. These nations and organizations will need to devise common strategies and policies not only to contain Russia but also to compete effectively with China.
February 24 was a turning point in history. Democratic powers of the West are once again called upon to defend a rules-based order that has been violently uprooted. Fortunately, the Western powers possess the innate strength necessary to contain Russia and outcompete China for influence across the globe. The only real question is whether they have the will and determination to do so in unison.