As the war in Ukraine drags on, we are seeing increased reports of Ukrainian wins in their resistance against Russia. Just this week, Russia’s naval flagship the “Moskva” was sunk in the conflict after being hit by Ukrainian Neptune missiles. It is unclear what kind of direct strategic effect this will have in the coming days, but it certainly makes for good international PR, and should be a morale booster for Ukraine forces.
High-tech weapons have aided Ukraine in resisting a superior force. Dramatic footage is coming out daily of Russian tanks being destroyed by United States Javelin missiles and helicopters shot down by United Kingdom Starstreaks. There is no doubt that Ukraine would have fallen very quickly but for these advanced weapons systems provided by NATO and her partners. The aid has not been limited to defensive weaponry either. Australia has recently donated its Bushmaster armored personnel carrier, and the Czech Republic has even started supplying tanks to Ukraine.
From one perspective these are great developments. Russia has suffered massive losses and has been frustrated in its efforts to take over the country quickly. The analysis does not end there, however. Putin is betting his Presidency, and even his own life, on a victory in Ukraine. He views it as an existential crisis for himself and Russia. As such, there may be no limit to what he is willing to do for a win. This may include using a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield to procure a quick victory.
That is why his warning this week to the United States and its partners to stop arming Ukraine must be viewed very seriously as the words of a man backed into a corner. Is this to say that we should stop funding and helping Ukraine? No. What we do have to consider from a strategic perspective is how do we frustrate Putin’s aims while still giving him an off-ramp to claim victory and save face. Although not palatable, this is the reality of a nuclear-armed Russia. The total humiliation of Putin does not serve the best interests of the United States. A nuclear detonation would be incredibly destabilizing and must be avoided at all costs.