Its supposed military strength and its status as an energy superpower to whom Europeans were addicted had been widely, and it turns out wrongly, assumed to be Russia’s strongest assets.
Threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike is one thing, but serious people in important positions in Russia know that the consequences would be extreme — not least that it would bring many more countries into the war with ever greater weaponry. Deployment of a nuclear weapon is not impossible — this is an inherently unsafe situation — but it remains improbable.
All this said, many Western politicians are still fearful of calling for Russia’s actual defeat — fearful of the consequences of either the actions of a desperate dictator, or of an imploding Russia (with an even more extreme leader). The US, German and French leaderships in particular have not been so bold as to explicitly call for this, despite undesirability of any outcome favoring or conceding to Russia.
Indeed politicians are right to be fearful of a weakened and humiliated Russia. But logic suggests they should be even more wary of a strong and emboldened one.
Putin’s likely next move then, as he desperately seeks new ways to shift the dial back in his favor, will be conventional weapons strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and ‘traditional’ hybrid warfare against the West — the true enemy in his eyes (according to his own words).
This is to be expected. Russia is down but not out. The Red Army fought poorly against Finland in 1939 and was pushed back by the Nazis in 1941. But they regrouped and came back strongly in the latter stages of the war. More recently, in Chechnya in the late 1990s, Russia turned it around (in part by upping the brutality) after a ‘poor’ start. This is no time for Western complacency.
Putin’s regime is outwardly stable. Only hairline fractures currently show (the odd mid-level defection, the occasional subtext of dissent from his outer circles of cronies, and of course this latest announcement itself).
But the more defeats inflicted upon him, the more his military commanders will lose confidence in him — to the extent they have not already. This would be the best outcome — a change of regime from within, not by the hand of the West or even its policies. And it is not beyond reach. This war will bring down Putin.