The Guessing Game about What Putin Will Do If He Begins to Lose Even More Badly in Ukraine
I don’t know exactly what Putin will do. But neither do you!
In 1986, I wrote my honors senior thesis at Stanford University on Soviet decision-making behind military interventions in eastern Europe as well as American responses to them. In my thesis – which turned out to be way too long (256 pages!) – I tried to explain why Soviet leaders intervened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 but did not militarily intervene in Poland in 1981, instead only supporting the imposition of martial law to destroy the Polish Solidarity movement there. I also attempted to assess whether U.S. foreign policy influenced Soviet decision-making in these three cases. Tragically, this topic is still relevant today.
I had a wise and brilliant thesis advisor, Professor Alexander Dallin. In the first draft of my thesis, I repeatedly wrote “Khrushchev believed,” Brezhnev thought,” or the “Soviet Union wanted.” In the margins of that draft, Dallin dozens of times wrote, “how do you know?” Today, when reading the many analyses of Putin’s decision-making, or sharing my views on Putin’s thinking for that matter, I often hear Dallin’s voice in my head. “How do you know, Mike?”
I do know something about Putin and how decision-making works in Russia. I first met Vladimir Putin in the spring of 1991. I wrote my first article about him in The Washington Post, published on March 3, 2000, a few weeks before he got elected as president for the first time. I titled it “Indifferent to Democracy,” in which I warned about Putin’s autocratic proclivities. The most recent piece I devoted to Putin was published in The Washington Post on January 26, 2022, and titled “Vladimir Putin does not think like we do.”
Since 1991, I have followed his career very closely. In fact, I just did a quick word search on my resume, and it looks like the word “Putin” appears in titles of over 60 articles and books I have written, including From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia and Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. While serving in the U.S. government for five years from 2009-2014, first as the Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Security Council and then as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, I attended almost every meeting and listened in on almost every phone call that Putin had with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry, and National Security Advisor Donilon. During those five years in the U.S. government, I also frequently met with some of Putin’s closest advisors and read the highest level of classified U.S. intelligence about Putin. To this day, I continue to interact with U.S. government officials of the highest level about Putin.
And yet, I do not pretend to know with certainty how Putin thinks. I am especially nervous about declaring with confidence that I can predict how Putin would react if he began to lose his war in Ukraine. So, everyone else should also stop pretending that they know with certainty as well. All of us “Putinologists” must be humble in our assessments especially about Putin’s future behavior, which means worrying about worst-case scenarios, but also not assuming that these worst-case scenarios are the only possible outcomes – the only possible choices that Putin can make.
Let’s start by unpacking the most common assumption from the ever-growing expert community about Putin – that before ending his invasion, he needs to “save face.” Some Putinologists, veering into the discipline of psychology, claim that the Kremlin autocrat needs an off-ramp – often a euphemism for some chunk of Ukrainian territory – to end his invasion. Otherwise, as this line of analysis contends, he will do something crazy.
But why must Putin need to save his face in the first place? In front of whom? His generals? Far-right nationalists? Prigozhin? Kadyrov? Xi? The presumption in this argument is usually that there is some faction inside Russia that Putin needs to placate with a “win.” But this assumption is wrong for several reasons.
First, Russia is a dictatorship. A strong one. Putin faces no challengers from elites or society that a democratic leader might face when fighting or losing a war. People criticizing Putin for failing to achieve his initial objectives, which he clearly stated in his February 21, 2022, address, have no way to overthrow him or to even really criticize him. Putin jailed thousands of anti-war critics of the war with little trouble. If he wanted to do so, Putin could silence pro-war critics just as easily.
Second, again in part because Russia is a dictatorship, Putin can define victory in any way he wants. Tomorrow on television, Putin could declare victory by claiming that he (1) freed the people of Donbas from fascists, (2) protected “ethnic Russians” in Crimea, or (3) stopped NATO’s invading forces in Ukraine before they reached Russian borders. Sound kooky? If you think it does, you obviously haven’t been watching the craziness expressed every night on Russian state-controlled television as I have. Victory is often an elastic term in military conflicts, but this is especially the case in Putin’s Russia.
Third, if Putin ended his war tomorrow and claimed victory (as defined by him), the vast majority of Russians would support him. Survey data make this clear. Data from October 2022, however flawed, indicates that “60% [of responders] would support Putin if he launche[d] a new attack on Kyiv” and “75% would support Putin if he stop[ped] the war right now.” See more here. Putin doesn’t need to save face in front of the Russian people. They support him in war and will support him if he decides to end his war.
Another central argument made by the new army of Putin specialists is that the Russian leader will use his nuclear wagon against Ukraine if he begins to lose, and especially if Kyiv begins to use military force to restore sovereignty over Crimea. (The idea that Putin is going to launch a nuclear attack against the NATO countries is so far-fetched that it doesn’t deserve any attention.) This is a real concern. I think it’s very unlikely, but Putin might. I am certainly worried about this scenario even if it is a low-probability event. In fact, I am much more worried about this scenario than my colleagues in the Ukrainian government and parliament, who remind me that it is their families who get attacked, not my family, and hence we should listen to them more closely and stop deterring ourselves from providing better weapons out of fear of nuclear escalation. I agree. But I am also still worried. There is academic literature that discusses how leaders sometimes do crazy things – "gamble for resurrection" – in desperate situations. (See Hein Goemans, War and Punishment, 2000, and Downs and Rocke, “Conflict, Agency, and Gambling for Resurrection: The Principal-Agent Problem Goes to War,” AJPS, 1994.) Putin is an ideologically motivated risk-taker. I wrote about these proclivities in “Putin, Putinism, and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy,” International Security, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 95-139. You can read the article here.
But Putin is not crazy. He too can assess the very high risks of using a nuclear weapon because that action would (1) not end the war; Ukrainians would instead double down in their efforts to defeat Russia; (2) further isolate Putin and Russia from the rest of the world, including from China and India; (3) not be supported by large segments of Russian society and maybe not even his own generals; and (4) trigger massive new military assistance to Ukraine– ATACMs, jets, armed drones – from the West that Biden and other leaders so far have not provided out of fear of nuclear escalation. I don’t know how he tallies up the risks versus the rewards, but there is no doubt in my mind that Putin is assessing these costs against the benefits of using a nuclear weapon.
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Moreover, Putin has other options to achieve his goals or defend his alleged “red lines” such as keeping Crimea. Most obviously, he could sue for peace. Yes, some leaders fight until death when losing wars. But history shows that other leaders also try to negotiate, as American leaders did, for instance, in response to losing in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Russian leaders have done so repeatedly throughout history too, including in Afghanistan as well as at the end of World War I, the Japan-Russia war, and even the first Chechen war (Yeltsin, suffering heavy losses, agreed to a ceasefire in exchange for territorial autonomy, but not independence.) Putin can do so too. The assumption that his only option is to double down by using a nuclear weapon is simply not accurate. He has options. Again, he could declare victory overnight, call for a ceasefire before he loses Donbas or Crimea, and then call upon European leaders to pressure Zelenskyy to stop fighting, especially before Ukrainian armed forces try to retake Crimea. Some, not all, European leaders would likely side with Putin in the name of peace, which would put Zelenskyy in a very difficult position. To come out of this war with a “saved face,” Putin has more options than just the nuclear one.
Finally, let’s interrogate the “rat in the corner” metaphor that so many newly minted Putinologists love to invoke to explain how Putin will react if he loses his face, or is embarrassed by defeat. Putin is highly motivated by grand majestic ideas and emotions and has a strong desire to be right next to Peter the Great or Catherine the Great in the history books. As such, Putin might lash out irrationally when faced with genuine defeat on the battlefield. (It’s hard to imagine Putin being mentioned in the same breath as Peter the Great if he does something so crazy as to use a nuclear weapon against his Slavic “brothers and sisters” in Ukraine.) I don’t know. But you don’t know either. Too many new Putin experts have bought into the Russian leader’s very cultivated image as a strongman, riding horses shirtless, flying MiGs, hunting in Siberia, swimming in an ice-cold lake, and all that. But his actual behavior in the past has been more complicated and not so macho and decisive. Indeed, a few times when he has been cornered and lost face, he backed down.
For instance, last October, Putin blocked 218 ships in the Black Sea, seeking to transport 40,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat to Ethiopia, despite the July deal to allow grain exports from Ukraine. Putin said that following drone attacks on the Black Sea fleet, he “could not guarantee safety of civilian ships.” United Nations, the West, and Turkey called him out on this bluff. Eventually, Putin gave in, backed down, and no escalation happened.
Even more dramatically, in 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Putin of potential consequences should he continue to violate Turkish airspace by flying Russian jets into Syria. Putin ignored Erdoğan’s warning. So, on November 24, 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian SU-34 jet after ignoring several warnings made in English and Russian. The world braced for a big showdown between Turkey and Russia. But nothing happened. Russia did not attack Turkey. Putin backed down.
Finally, though a long time ago, Putin did not march into Tbilisi after he invaded Georgia in August 2008. He stopped short of the Georgian capital and did not try to overthrow President Saakashvili, even though Moscow told Washington that Saakashvili’s overthrow was a condition for stopping the invasion (Read chapter 53 of Condi Rice’s book, No Higher Honor.) He backed down. In 2014, Putin also halted his military operation to capture “Novorossiya” in eastern Ukraine, because Ukrainian armed forces stopped him.
I don’t know what Putin will do if he starts to lose in Donbas or Crimea. And so don’t you. But we all should recognize that he is not suicidal, he is not crazy, and that he has options.