How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
National leaders who are losing wars sometimes resort to desperate gambles. Defeat or even lack of victory might threaten their hold on power, and they are sometimes willing to take daring or outside-the-box moves to try to turn things around. This is the great fear about the war in Ukraine: if Russian President Vladimir Putin judges that his back is up against the wall, he may decide to take catastrophic action.
If he does so, he certainly has some nasty tools he could use. In the weeks since Ukraine’s dramatic September offensive, Putin has already demonstrated his willingness to order conventional airstrikes and missile strikes against civilian targets, including population centers and power-grid infrastructure in many parts of Ukraine. Russian forces could renew attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, risking the release of nuclear radiation. More darkly, one cannot rule out the possibility that he might deploy chemical or biological weapons against Ukrainian targets, as his Soviet predecessors did in their war in Afghanistan. Given the moral backlash that would ensue, some might assume that Moscow would be deterred from such action. But it is also possible that Putin might be encouraged by the relatively lackluster U.S. responses to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war and Russia’s use of a nerve agent against Russian defectors living in Britain in 2018.
Even more concerning to many observers is Putin’s repeated mention of nuclear weapons. As a nuclear-armed state, Russia could conceivably use a tactical nuclear bomb in an all-out effort to shift the course of the war. Although the reprisals for such an attack would likely be devastating, observers may wonder if Putin could decide he has nothing to lose. On October 27, Putin declared, “There is no point in [using nuclear weapons], neither political nor military,” but his previous comments have been none too reassuring. Will he stay away from the nuclear option even if he gets more desperate?
The good news is that history suggests that Putin is unlikely to fulfill the West’s worst fears. Some leaders in losing wars have taken dramatic actions to stave off defeat. But often they have decided against the most drastic options, for either political or strategic reasons. Putin, like other leaders before him, will take into account whether his actions might actually help him win, and he may be reluctant to contemplate moves that could expose Russia to even greater losses or, worse, undermine his rule at home. Of course, there are still reasons to worry about a desperate Putin. But by examining how leaders tend to behave in these situations, the United States and its partners and allies can arrive at a more considered assessment of Putin’s threats and frame their own policies accordingly.
The situation that Putin now finds himself in is hardly new. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many leaders fighting losing wars have attempted to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Occasionally these risky moves succeed, such as the United States’ wild gamble during the Korean War to undertake the Inchon amphibious landing, in which, after weeks of North Korean advances, General Douglas MacArthur launched a surprise attack on a fortified site behind enemy lines, achieving a decisive victory. Often, however, these moves fail: consider Germany’s decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic in January 1917, which ended up drawing the United States into World War I and ensuring Germany’s ultimate defeat.
Two things are clear about these military gambles. First, they are usually built on a theory of victory. States will engage in such a move only if there is a logic by which it might actually turn the war around. In ordering Germany’s last-gasp offensive in the Ardennes region of Belgium in December 1944, Adolf Hitler hoped to shatter the American line and force U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to consider peace talks. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missile attacks on Israeli cities during the 1990–1991 Gulf War were intended to split off Arab states from the UN coalition. Neither of these leaders, of course, obtained their desired objective, but in both cases, there was at least a larger plan in play.
Second, just because a war is going badly does not mean that everything is on the table. Despite being backed into a corner, leaders may rule out some options. They may be wary of a move that might incur outsize strategic costs, even if it might turn the tide on the battlefield. In the Korean War, for example, China’s November 1950 intervention posed grave risks to the U.S. military position there. Yet the Truman administration ruled out direct attacks on Chinese territory because the risks of escalation with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union were too high.
In other cases, a leader may dismiss some options for fear of political backlash. Even a ruthless autocrat may recognize the diplomatic costs of some military measures. This does not mean that leaders stay away from all nasty behavior, but there are some places they are unwilling to go, even in desperate times. Take nuclear weapons. Since 1945, there have been a number of cases in which nuclear-armed belligerents have found themselves in losing or stalled conventional wars against nonnuclear adversaries. Yet they have invariably elected to keep their nuclear weapons holstered. The United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan, France in its insurgency war in Algeria, China in its wars with Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s: all failed to accomplish their military goals with conventional means, yet none of them resorted to nuclear weapons.
Even heinous regimes are sometimes constrained by moral considerations. Consider imperial Japan during World War II, one of history’s most genocidal regimes. In 1945, as defeat appeared inevitable, the Japanese considered launching an extraordinary biological weapons attack against San Diego, dispersing fleas infected with bubonic plague and other diseases from seaplanes. The operation was eventually called off by the Japanese chief of general staff—in part, he said, because although Japan had used biological weapons against China earlier in the war, by using them against the United States, “Japan will earn the derision of the world.”
Given this general pattern of restraint, what factors might shape Putin’s thinking should Russian military setbacks continue to pile up? The Russian leader’s calculations are framed by the fact that he has staked so much on the war. It is clear that he fears the absence of victory, meaning, the absence of significant concessions by the Ukrainian government. He has gone all in, describing the “special operation” as essential to protect Russia from NATO and neutralize the “Nazi” threat posed by Ukraine, as well as for Russia to realize its true Novorossiya identity and borders. And like most dictators, he has also made concerted efforts to solidify his grip on power even as the war has unfolded.
Despite these steps, however, the Russian war effort is floundering, and the Russian population has begun to question the war. Some have publicly expressed outrage over the mismanagement of the war, including pro-Russian bloggers, the head of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, local political leaders within Russia, and members of the Russian media. Within Russian society, discontent seems to be growing, as shown by the decision of nearly 300,000 Russian men to flee the country to evade the recent expanded draft. Antiwar protests continue to occur, including from the difficult-to-silence families of dead Russian soldiers, despite widespread arrests and crackdowns. And the Internet is flooded with stories of new conscripts being sent into battle without proper training or equipment.
If Russia fails in Ukraine, it could pose a real threat to Putin’s hold on power. A 1917-style mass revolution is unlikely, as is a violent military coup. But it is plausible to imagine a more bloodless removal from power, in the mode of Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 or that of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. In this situation, elites would privately approach Putin and tell him it is time for him to go, without public protest or his arrest—although Putin’s narcissism and megalomania might cause him to view even this kind of managed exit to be unacceptable. With the future of his own power at stake, Putin might have additional incentives to pursue greater pain and destruction in Ukraine. For example, by escalating the level of civilian suffering, as Russia has done in recent weeks, Putin may hope to push Kyiv to make concessions. Nevertheless, a desperate Putin, much like his counterparts in earlier losing wars, is unlikely to pursue the most drastic options.
The darkest nightmare of Ukraine and its Western allies, of course, is a Russian decision to launch nuclear attacks. But consider the factors that Putin would need to weigh in making this choice. First, it is crucial to note how completely out-of-bounds such a move would be. Since 1945, states have engaged in an array of horrifying tactics, using chemical and biological weapons, massacring civilians, and engaging in mass sexual assault. Yet they have never used nuclear weapons. U.S. President Joe Biden and his NATO allies have repeatedly stated that this is a bright redline that Moscow must not cross.
Putin’s growing isolation and hardening autocracy do not mean that he views using nuclear weapons as acceptable. It is true that in recent years, Putin has taken large steps to sever his ties with the West and has loudly declared his indifference to Western disapproval of his tightening grip on Russian society, his backing of the Assad government in Syria, his meddling in Western elections, his invasion of Ukraine, and everything else. But nuclear first use would be an action of a different order. It is the one thing that might cause the entire world, including important Russian allies such as Saudi Arabia and China, to back away from Russia and withdraw support for Moscow. There would likely be backlash within Russia, too, especially if Russian nuclear first use occurred without direct NATO involvement in the war. One June poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 38 percent of Russians are “very frightened” over Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons.
Disapproval aside, using a nuclear weapon could open doors that Putin would prefer to leave closed. NATO troops or airpower might become directly involved in Ukraine. And of course there is the possibility that NATO could respond in kind, something Russia does not want, especially given the United States’ superior arsenal. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are not particularly useful as tools of warfare, in that they are ill suited for conquering territory. They would either destroy or irradiate any assets that Russia hopes to conquer. And using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, of course, runs the risk of causing radioactive fallout to drift into Russia itself. Notably, the 1986 nuclear plant accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which released a far smaller amount of radiation than a nuclear weapon blast, produced radioactive fallout that drifted over Russia and likely caused some of the same health effects in the Russian population—such as increased rate of thyroid cancer—that it did among Ukrainians.
Retired Russian generals have noted that nuclear weapons have little utility.
Moreover, Ukraine does not have obvious military targets for nuclear attacks, such as nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers. The country’s military strength is built on tens of thousands of brave fighters distributed across hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of territory, often deployed in proximity to Russian troops. Limited nuclear attacks against Ukrainian troops would not heavily damage Ukrainian military strength. Retired Russian generals have pointed out that nuclear weapons have little utility, especially since conventional weapons can now accomplish many of Russia’s largest military aims, such as damaging Ukrainian infrastructure. In October, the Ukrainian government expressed concern that Russia might destroy the gigantic Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine, but with conventional explosives.
There is, of course, the possibility that Putin could use nuclear weapons against Ukrainian population centers in an attempt to break the Ukrainian will to resist. Such attacks might seem to make more strategic sense, even though history shows that bombing civilians almost never causes the target country to make significant concessions. And using nuclear weapons simply to kill a very large number of people rather than to achieve some kind of military objective would incur overwhelming global wrath.
Along with a nuclear strike, the other desperate move the West fears most is a direct Russian attack—even nonnuclear—on NATO member states. Given the current situation and Biden’s statements, it would be very difficult for the United States to avoid entering the war directly after such a Russian move. But this kind of attack is even less likely than a nuclear attack, because of its lack of strategic logic. Russian troops are already being defeated by the Ukrainian military; the Kremlin must surely fear the potential for humiliation at the hands of NATO forces.
Given these significant barriers to drastic escalation on Putin’s part, the West can afford to turn down the panic meter a bit. Just as fears of Saddam’s possible desperate actions rightly did not dissuade us from liberating Kuwait in 1991, fears of Putin’s desperation should not stop us from supporting Ukraine. Western leaders should continue their current course of action, which is to provide a steady supply of military aid to Ukraine, seek ways to isolate Russian diplomatically and economically, and keep NATO troops out of combat, knowing that this course allows Ukraine to fight, survive, and make headway without creating significant risks that the West’s worst fears might come true. Just as the United States should be careful not to needlessly provoke or provide a pretext for Russian escalation, there is also no need to seek peace at any price.
That said, finding a way out of the war, and its escalating human costs, has become increasingly urgent. The conflict continues to inflict enormous suffering on the Ukrainian people, and economic damage on much of the rest of the world through disruption of the energy and food markets. And Putin can and may resort to tactics that could make this suffering and damage worse, even without pulling the nuclear trigger. Finding a way out means having a real conversation about what the terms of peace should be. Especially given Ukraine’s military successes this fall, Ukrainian recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea, as recently suggested by Elon Musk, is likely off the table. But in exchange for at least Russian withdrawal of all troops from Ukraine and a verbal commitment to no longer support rebel groups inside the country, Ukraine could agree to stay out of NATO, especially since Ukrainian NATO membership is unlikely to get through the U.S. Senate, and even without membership, NATO could continue to supply Ukraine with training and weapons. Ukraine could also agree to restore the flow of water to Crimea, something it could do without recognizing Russian conquest of Ukraine.
The United States should not let exaggerated fears of desperate action dissuade it from advancing national interests. The West’s enemies sometimes wish to feign desperation or madness to frighten it into inaction. Let us not accommodate them.