Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to recent military setbacks with defiance. After Ukrainian military successes this fall, Putin has ordered the hasty mobilization of several hundred thousand more troops, orchestrated sham referendums in occupied areas to formally incorporate them into Russia, issued increasingly explicit nuclear threats, and launched a wave of missile strikes across Ukraine. Many attribute this behavior to uniquely terrifying characteristics of Putin and his regime and argue that the West should force Ukraine to give in, lest the war escalate to terrifying new levels of carnage and destruction.

That would be a mistake. Early in the war, Moscow’s effort was plagued by ignorance, overconfidence, and bad planning. Those problems are hardly unique to Russia, having marked many U.S. interventions, as well. Now that Moscow has run into trouble, the Kremlin’s anger in the face of defeat is also familiar, resembling how the Nixon administration approached the Vietnam War half a century ago. Bluster, bombing, and nuclear saber rattling didn’t work then, and eventually, Washington accepted reality and withdrew from the conflict. It is possible to get Moscow to do the same today.

Despite the problems he faces, Putin seems to think that if he can hold on until winter, all will be well. His new recruits will stabilize the battlefield, the pace of military operations will slow, his threats of escalation will scare everybody, and Western opposition to the war will increase as high energy prices and inflation bite. All this, he hopes, will set the stage for a sustainably frozen conflict or a negotiated settlement generous enough to let him claim a victory.

This plan can be frustrated, however, so long as Washington and Europe can hold fast against Russian bullying and maintain Ukrainian military pressure on the ground. Relentless conventional operations can continue to push Russian lines backward and force Moscow into accepting its least bad option—a negotiated settlement that restores the February 24 territorial status quo. And once reality sinks in on the Russian side and such a settlement becomes possible, Washington should work with Kyiv and Europe to lock it in and close out the fighting.


Like chess, war has three phases: an opening, a middle, and an endgame. In the first, the parties engage one another and deploy their forces. In the second, they fight it out. And in the third, they settle the details of the outcome. The transition to a war’s endgame is not a military or political event but a psychological one. It involves recognition by the belligerents that the conflict is stuck in a stalemate or trending irreversibly in one direction. Such recognition is always hard for losers. They have to give up their hopes of victory, going through the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

One can see the Kremlin doing this in real time right now, as the success of Ukrainian operations brings the endgame of this war closer. Moscow’s nuclear threats, for example, are both a heightened form of anger and an implicit form of bargaining. Yet however shocking and transgressive such brinksmanship may appear today, there is no need to attribute it to an unprecedentedly disturbed individual psyche or to a particular national context. The United States behaved similarly as it confronted defeat in Vietnam before ultimately extricating itself from its quagmire—as Russia is also likely to do down the road, if all its other choices look even worse.

In 1965, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson ramped up the United States’ involvement in Vietnam to save its South Vietnamese ally from defeat. A combination of gradually increasing aerial bombing and ground combat, the thinking went, would convince North Vietnam to abandon its efforts to unify the country and allow the regime in Saigon to survive. But the Communists refused to give in, proving to be far more resilient and capable than expected, and Washington had no Plan B. In 1968, unwilling to withdraw but realizing that Americans didn’t have the stomach for further escalation, a frustrated Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection, capped U.S. troop deployments, restricted bombing in the North, and kicked the problem to his successor.

Losers in war go through the five stages of grief.

Richard Nixon entered the Oval Office in January 1969 committed to the same objective as his predecessor—a negotiated settlement guaranteeing an intact and secure South Vietnam—but knowing that U.S. patience with the war was wearing thin. So he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, decided to try bringing Hanoi to the negotiating table with sticks and carrots. As White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman put it, Nixon wanted to mix threats of extreme force with promises of lavish aid:

With this combination of a strong warning plus unprecedented generosity, he was certain he could force the North Vietnamese—at long last—into legitimate peace negotiations.

The threat was the key, and Nixon coined a phrase for his theory…. He said, “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Previous U.S. efforts at coercion hadn’t worked because they weren’t taken seriously enough, the thinking went. But the new team could cow its opponents into submission by showing its toughness. Kissinger told his staff to plan a “savage, punishing blow” against the enemy, saying, “I can’t believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” In the spring of 1969, the White House authorized unprecedented bombing campaigns against Communist areas in Laos and Cambodia. In the summer, it threatened massive future attacks. And in the fall, it sent patrols of thermonuclear-armed B-52 bombers in looping arcs over the North Polar ice cap toward the Soviet Union in order to spook Moscow into reining in Hanoi.

This first Nixon strategy failed, however, because the Communists simply absorbed the blows and called Washington’s bluff. Realizing that actually carrying out his threats would make things worse rather than better, the president shifted course. By November, he had adopted a second strategy of extrication, gradually diminishing U.S. military involvement while maintaining a commitment to the existing regime in Saigon. After three more years of war, an agreement emerged permitting the United States to walk out, get its prisoners back, and not formally betray an ally. That same agreement, nevertheless, paved the way for the fall of South Vietnam two years later.


Three lessons can be learned from this episode for those interested in pushing a stronger nuclear power out of their country. The first concerns the importance of successful ground combat. Americans often try to gain victory in war through indirect measures such as sanctions, bombing, or threats of future devastating actions. But the fact remains that at the end of the day, wars are decided on the battlefield. The military skill and passion of the Vietnamese Communists kept them in the war against a stronger foe and ultimately led them to win it. The same thing is happening in Ukraine now, as skilled and passionate Ukrainian forces push the Russians backward field by field, village by village. If that progress on the ground can continue, nothing else will matter, and the war will be wrapped up in due course. So enabling it to keep going should be Washington’s highest priority.

The second lesson is to resist bullying. Losing powers do not go gently into that good night, especially strong ones for which defeat comes as a nasty surprise. One should therefore expect Moscow to rage against its fate now, just as Washington did half a century ago. Loud threats of escalation are a sign of weakness, not strength; if Russia had good options for changing the situation in its favor, it would have used them already. The United States and Europe should thus mostly ignore Russian threats and provocations and avoid getting distracted from their main task: helping Ukraine win on the ground.

The third lesson is to integrate force and diplomacy. The United States had struggled to do this in Korea, as Kissinger noted in 1957: “Our decision to stop military operations, except those of a purely defensive nature, at the very beginning of the armistice negotiations reflected our conviction that the process of negotiation operated on its own inherent logic independently of the military pressures brought to bear,” he wrote. “But by stopping military operations we removed the only Chinese incentive for a settlement; we produced the frustration of two years of inconclusive negotiations.”

Loud threats of escalation are a sign of weakness, not strength.

In the later stages of Vietnam, both sides avoided that mistake and kept fighting while negotiating. The same will likely happen in Ukraine, and so everyone should expect the intensity of the war to increase, not decrease, as settlement approaches. Russia will want to cover its retreat with a burst of violence, to release its fury at losing and publicly demonstrate its remaining potency. This pattern can be seen in Putin’s response to Ukraine’s destruction of Kerch Strait Bridge, and similar actions will follow future Ukrainian successes. But again, this is nothing new. The United States did even worse with the so-called Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972, the most destructive raids of the entire Vietnam war. (As Kissinger’s aide John Negroponte would quip, “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.”) The Communists did not let such American behavior derail their own military or diplomatic efforts then, nor should the West let such Russian actions do so now.

Putin is channeling the tsars, not Hitler. For all his anticolonial pretensions, Russia’s president is fighting to reclaim provinces in his country’s lost empire. When colonial wars go bad, imperial powers eventually cut their losses and go home. And metropolitan elites know the difference between core and periphery. The votes arranged in Russian-occupied territory in September were a desperate attempt to paint a pretty surface on the ugly reality beneath. (The eighteenth-century Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin, buried in Kherson, would have found the move amusing.) But even formal incorporation of a colony into a great power’s national territory is no guarantee of permanent residence; just ask a Pied-Noir from Algeria. If Ukraine can keep up sufficient military pressure, at some point Russia will start looking for the exit and this war’s endgame will begin in earnest. Then, and not before, the inevitable necessary compromises on all sides will come to the fore, and difficult tradeoffs will have to be made.

Russia will be bruised but not beaten, humbled but not humiliated. Like the White House in the early 1970s, the Kremlin will be obsessed with maintaining its influence and credibility at home and abroad. Any settlement that emerges will not be a capitulation stemming from collapse, but a deliberate decision to pull back in order to stanch the flow of blood, treasure, and political capital. Given how much residual power Russia will retain, some Ukrainian objectives, even major ones, will have to be deferred. The least that should be demanded is a return to the February 24 positions, making it clear that Moscow has not gained territorially from its aggression. Progress locked in there could be built on later in other areas, such as the fate of other occupied areas in the Donbas, the ultimate status of Crimea, Russian war crimes, and broader regional security arrangements.


There is every reason to believe that Russia will not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Threatening to do so makes sense. It frightens people, induces worry and caution in Ukraine’s supporters, and prompts calls for early negotiations to head off the danger, all at zero cost. Actually using them, however, would reverse the calculus, bringing few benefits and many additional costs, including retaliation, opprobrium, and loss of international support. This is why all previous nuclear threats since 1945 have not been followed up with action. Even if they were used, however, it would not improve Russia’s position or change the outcome.

Large-scale nuclear use—say, taking out a major city with a giant bomb—remains safely deterred by the multiple kinds of catastrophic consequences for Moscow that would swiftly follow. The least improbable uses, therefore, would be at a smaller scale, involving warheads at the lower end of the tactical nuclear spectrum, either over deserted areas as a demonstration or against Ukrainian forces during combat.

The point of a nuclear demonstration would be to show resolve and intention. In essence: “Everybody freeze, or next time we’ll bring on the apocalypse.” Such moves have been considered by policymakers in many countries at many times and have always been rejected, for good reason. The very restrictions placed on the demonstration, such as remote location and few casualties, would make it ineffective by conveying hesitation as much as resolve. If you were scared to go for broke this time, why would you be less scared next time?

As for using small nuclear weapons in combat, that could be helpful in certain military contexts, such as taking out an aircraft carrier at sea, destroying a large formation of tanks in the desert, or blocking a crucial passage through the mountains. But the war in Ukraine features none of those. It consists of relatively small units fighting in close quarters on territory Russia now claims as its own. Deploying tactical nuclear weapons in such circumstances would not affect the larger strategic picture while poisoning the very places Moscow is supposedly trying to rescue.

In either of these scenarios, after the explosions, Ukraine would still be on track to defeat Russia on the ground, its Western supporters would be even more determined to continue their support and deny Moscow anything resembling a victory, and foreign support for Russia would evaporate. Nuclear use would be self-defeating—not a prelude to general war or a model to be followed but a cautionary tale of reckless strategic ineptitude.

The central fact of this war is that one side is outperforming the other on the conventional battlefield. The losing side has nuclear weapons, and the conflict is likely to end, as have similar ones before it, with those weapons sitting irrelevantly on the sidelines while the conflict’s outcome is decided. Among the many casualties of the war in Ukraine, therefore, may turn out to be judgments regarding the value and utility of the vast nuclear arsenals that the great powers maintain at such large cost, effort, and risk.

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  • GIDEON ROSE is Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of How Wars End.
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