This piece is part of a series of policy analyses entitled “The Talbott Papers on Implications of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” named in honor of American statesman and former Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott. Brookings is grateful to Trustee Phil Knight for his generous support of the Brookings Foreign Policy program. This piece was written before the Russian military’s withdrawal from Kherson City and the west bank of the Dnipro River in November 2022.
The Ukraine war is most certainly not going according to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan — or indeed, according to any of the revisions of the plan that the High Command in Moscow has had to make during eight months of hard fighting. A defiant Ukraine is firmly set on defeating the aggression, and the united (far beyond Russian calculations) West is committed to supporting Kyiv all the way. The contours of Ukrainian victory have become distinguishable through the proverbial fog of war, but the scope, timing, and resonance of a Russian defeat remain obscured.
The working proposition here is that Russia’s defeat can arrive suddenly and unfold quickly.
This analysis attempts to outline a trajectory of this forthcoming defeat, which would steer clear of a catastrophic breakdown of Russia’s autocratic regime and the break-up of this deeply troubled state. Such an outcome of Putin’s war of stupendously bad choice is a distinct possibility — the historic precedent of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917-18 remains informative — but calling an imaginary disaster into existence is hardly a worthy intellectual exercise. The working proposition here is that Russia’s defeat can arrive suddenly and unfold quickly (which is not to say that it will) and that this process would involve challenges and risks that would be different and more intense than those inherent to the process of a slow-coming defeat in a protracted and essentially unwinnable war. A sine qua non in this proposition is Putin’s removal from power, which may appear improbable, until it actually happens.
In late summer 2022, the majority of Western forecasts were about a long war of attrition, which made it possible to postpone the deliberations on post-war risks for months, if not years. By late September, the sequence of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations had curtailed this lazy thinking, but a new pause on the key battlefields since mid-October has brought it back. Propagandists and mainstream experts in Moscow still assert Russia’s readiness to prevail in a protracted war, but this argument belongs to the domain of information warfare and is undercut by insightful evaluations that demonstrate the army’s diminishing combat capabilities and degradation of Russia’s defense-industrial complex. The prevalent theme now is assessing options of a nuclear escalation, but this analysis will stay clear of this territory of unthinkable, assuming — as a few sober Russian scientists do — that any first nuclear use would be a catastrophe for Russia.1
The tide of war has clearly turned. Putin’s dual decision to order a partial mobilization (inevitably crudely mismanaged) and the annexation of four Ukrainian regions (from which Russian forces are being expelled, village by village) cannot alter these dynamics. Every square mile liberated by inspired Ukrainian battalions signifies another breach of Russia’s muddled territorial integrity, compromised by the fact that it has incorporated territories outside its control. This means that the opportunities and risks inherent to a painful reckoning in Moscow with the reality of failure in its fateful “special operation” must be examined without delay.
Kherson makes a big difference in Moscow
Charting a course of a Russian defeat requires common-sense strategic forethought, rather than a long stretch of imagination. Yet, among the multiple drivers of this debacle, it is the kinetic interactions on several Ukrainian battlefields that have produced crucial impact. The spectacular breakthrough at Balakliya and the expulsion of Russian forces from the Kharkiv region came as a shock for Western believers in a stalemate and for the war-planners in Moscow, but didn’t surprise those strategic thinkers who were monitoring the diminishing capabilities and declining morale of Russian forces and predicted that a rout would come gradually, then suddenly. It was possible for the Russian authorities to explain away that disaster as a “regrouping,” even if “patriotic” bloggers cried havoc, and the next retreat from Lyman was presented as a “planned maneuver” (to an even louder outcry), but at least a feared encirclement was avoided.
The on-going battle for Kherson, however, may produce a strategic setback of far greater proportions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared the intention to liberate this city in July, and a sequence of Ukrainian attacks started in August, but only a few tactical successes were scored. Russian command opted to bring reinforcements to this vulnerable position to the west of Dnipro River — in retrospect, this decision may be recognized as a major strategic blunder, determined by Putin’s order to maintain control over symbolically important Kherson. Putting the newly-provided U.S. mobile rocket launchers M142 HIMARS to good use, Ukrainian forces repeatedly hit the three Dnipro bridges and effectively denied the delivery of supplies to the 25,000-strong Russian grouping. The degraded Russian troops retreated under the forceful new Ukrainian attacks in early October, and the newly-appointed “special operation” Russian commander General Sergey Surovikin spoke about “difficult decisions” when ordering the evacuation of the Russian-installed Kherson administration. Kherson’s defenses have been reinforced by the newly-mobilized Russian infantry, but their combat spirit remains as low as their supplies, so a tactical Ukrainian breakthrough could trigger a rout — and unlike in Izyum, the desperate Russian battalions have no avenue for escape.
The Kremlin will not be able to hide or to explain away this disaster, and neither can it respond — as it did after the explosion on the Kerch bridge — with a wave of missile strikes, simply because the stocks of Kalibr and Iskander are already low. Back in July, a withdrawal from Kherson could have been compensated for with a new offensive in Donbas. But in late October, this push — conducted primarily by “Wagner” mercenaries due to the exhaustion of regular battalion tactical groups (BTGs) — appears useless and senseless.2 The partial mobilization decreed by Putin cannot produce effective reinforcements to stabilize defensive lines, nor can it deliver the modern military hardware for the newly-formed units. The mobilization has caused a profound shock for Russian society, amplified by the perception that every tactical setback now amounts to a loss of Russian territory, since Putin rushed the annexation not only of the Donetsk and Luhansk quasi-republics, but also of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Putin’s regime and his position as an irreplaceable leader might appear rock-solid. Yet, multiple cracks in this monolith have opened and are certain to expand under the impact of the Kherson defeat, quite possibly causing an abrupt collapse. Widespread social discontent underpins the discord among Russia’s elites. In this turbulent situation, any trigger — a minor mutiny in a demoralized BTG, an outburst of protests in a recession-hit region, or a technical accident in a poorly serviced oilfield — could generate a sudden but uncontainable political crisis in Moscow. War-hawks may cheer and even promote a coup toppling Putin, but their demands for a total mobilization have neither economic foundation nor public support, so the gang of usurpers would have few misgivings about cutting them out in order to find a way out of the accelerating catastrophe, blaming it on the dispatched “tsar”. Fanciful as this scenario might seem, it draws on multiple precedents in Russia’s history, illustrating particular ways of removing a delusional autocrat who has made himself into a larger-than-life problem. What is essential about Putin’s departure, which may happen not only very suddenly but also quite soon, is that it constitutes a key condition for this analysis, since he is firmly set on a course that will deliver Russia to a catastrophe.
Nuclear means to personal ends
Putting the blame for the failed “special operation” directly and exclusively on Putin’s shoulders (making sure that none of his henchmen object) might seem to be an easy way out of Russia’s hopeless situation for his immediate successors. This trick will, however, require much material proof of their readiness to end the war. The immediately available bargaining chip is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which has for several months remained a major security concern for Europe. An agreement to withdraw Russian forces from this area (cancelling Putin’s decree appropriating the plant) might be a first step in the series of territorial concessions. It could also pave the way to resuming talks with the United States on strategic stability and to opening new prospects for nuclear arms control.
Such negotiations have traditionally served the Kremlin as a key means of upholding Russia’s pivotal international status. The new leadership would have good reason to expect strong U.S. interest in replacing the 2010 New START treaty, renewed in 2021, but scheduled for expiration in 2026.3 The defeat in Ukraine is set to alter assessments in Moscow on the usefulness of nuclear weapons and on returns from the huge investments in modernizing the strategic triad since the beginning of 2010s, as the options for a nuclear escalation as a last resort measure to break the pattern of setbacks in Ukraine were (at least at the moment of this writing) re-evaluated and discarded. Putin’s successors may opt to cancel some of his pet projects, like the nuclear propelled cruise missile Burevestnik or the underwater nuclear drone Poseidon, which are nowhere near completion and involve extra-high risks during testing. Such steps could remove significant obstacles for making fast progress in strategic stability talks with the United States, but the harder problem of linking reductions of offensive capabilities with limitations on missile defense will require further concessions from Moscow.
The part of the Russian nuclear arsenal that has attracted unprecedented Western attention and concerns during the Ukraine war is the non-strategic warheads, on which no reliable data exists.
The part of the Russian nuclear arsenal that has attracted unprecedented Western attention and concerns during the Ukraine war is the non-strategic warheads, on which no reliable data exists. The new leadership may try to announce some unilateral reductions following the example of Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (1991), but the efficiency of such steps depends upon trust, which existed between former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, but will be in short supply in the final phase of the Ukraine war. One of the strongest incentives for the Russian elites — who will struggle to retain and divide power after Putin’s departure — to make meaningful compromises is set to be the removal of personal sanctions. This stimulus may encourage them to break the taboo on transparency regarding the stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Belarus breaks free
Russia’s military defeat in Kherson and the sequence of political retreats that the post-Putin leadership would have to execute will inevitably have an impact on the political situation in Belarus and enfeeble Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s grasp on power. Lukashenko has so far managed to resist pressure to partake directly in the invasion of Ukraine, but the February offensive operation by a Russian grouping of forces toward Kyiv from Belarusian territory inevitably made this state a party to the aggression, with the sanctions regime duly enforced. After the failure of that blitzkrieg, most Russian troops were moved out of Belarus, but the threat of a new attack, perhaps with participation of the Belarusian army, has persisted.
The suppression of mass protests in summer 2020 has left Lukashenko’s regime with an unsound domestic support base. Although the opposition is imprisoned or expelled, it is well organized around the leadership of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and proceeds with preparations for a new uprising. In hindsight, it is possible to conclude that two years ago, Putin was ready to execute a full-blown intervention to rescue the allied dictator-in-distress, but the Belarusian military’s (as well as riot police’s) capacity for such enforcement of dictatorial order is now exhausted and cannot be rebuilt. Lukashenko has weaseled out of more political crises than most autocrats, but he finds himself entirely dependent upon Putin’s goodwill (which has never been in rich supply) and the probable departure of this counterpart in two decades of bargaining and bickering leaves him in a hopeless corner.
One important difference in a possible new eruption of protests in Belarus from the peaceful mass demonstrations in 2020, is that two years ago there was practically no animosity toward Russia. Today, the war has significantly changed public attitudes in Belarus. The collapse of Lukashenko’s regime, even if initiated by his henchmen, is set to empower a mature and determined civil society and soon produce an unequivocally pro-European government that will have few doubts about cutting the ties of the union state treaty with Russia. This loss of its closest ally could cause another spasm of leadership crisis in Russia, and the reshuffled top team would have to re-evaluate the available options once again, arriving to the same unavoidable conclusion on the imperative to mitigate the confrontation with the West. The reluctant but inescapable decision to cancel the September annexation — which, unlike the Crimea annexation in 2014, has left Russian society indifferent and confused — and to withdraw forces to the status quo pre-February 24 positions, could produce a stable ceasefire with Ukraine and open bona fide peace negotiations.
Turmoil returns to the Caucasus
Belarus may be the weakest link in Russia’s geopolitical perimeter. But the sequence of Ukrainian victories could also reverberate in the Caucasus, which experienced a chain reaction of violent conflicts in the early 1990s, but was subsequently “pacified” by Russian power projections in various forms, including the August 2008 war with Georgia. The severe depletion of Russia’s military might and the recognition by various conflict entrepreneurs of this weakness could unleash a new wave of instability in the region, where suppressed rather than addressed sources of tensions tend to burst free. The sudden attack by Azerbaijan’s forces on several Armenian border posts and bases in mid-September is just one manifestation of this trend, and Armenia’s appeal for help to Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was predictably in vain. Azerbaijan is perfectly positioned to capitalize on its victory in the autumn 2020 war and establish full control over Nagorno Karabakh, and Russia would have to wrap up its small peacekeeping operation.4
One of the most dangerous challenges to Russia’s territorial integrity matures in the North Caucasus, where Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal ruler of Chechnya, has made himself an outspoken leader of the “war party” in Moscow’s clandestine political intrigues. Delivering on his self-description as Putin’s “foot soldier,” Kadyrov has sent several battalions of paramilitaries to fight in Ukraine, but Putin’s departure may change his aspirations and risk calculus. He has no stake in Ukraine and bitter political enemies in Moscow (who may well lead the gang of Putin’s successors), but his not-so-hidden aspiration is to make Chechnya a forceful actor in its own right, so he may well reignite the cause of independence. A new leadership in Moscow would have no capacity to fight a third Chechen war, but it might attempt a clampdown on Kadyrov’s assets and networks, which could result in an intensely personal and violent conflict.
Russia has neither the authority nor capacity for the role of security enforcer in the turbulent Caucasus, and these troubles might prompt the leadership in Moscow to concede defeat in Ukraine and withdraw from Donbas, clinging only to Crimea as the last line of political defense.
Georgia, while charting a very cautious course in the Ukrainian war, could become another seat of conflict, as the pro-Western factions in its fragmented political arena become emboldened by Russian setbacks, while the huge inflow of Russian refugees since late September adds to domestic turmoil. The August 2008 war has left painful legacies, and the proposition to restore control over the secessionist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (which Russia recognizes as “independent states”) has a strong public appeal. The legitimacy of this cause is reinforced by the international ostracism of the Donetsk and Luhansk quasi-republics and the universal rejection of Putin’s annexation. The reduction of Russian garrisons leaves South Ossetia indefensible, and North Ossetia may be reluctant to rise to defend its ethnic kin (of which perhaps only some 30,000 are still residing on the far side of the mountains). Abkhazia is a more complex case. Moscow may decide that the beach resorts there are not worth the fight, but Kadyrov may opt to revive Chechen insurgent Shamil Basayev’s legacy and dispatch his battalions there, while Turkey might decide to defy this maverick and grant its support to the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Russia has neither the authority nor capacity for the role of security enforcer in the turbulent Caucasus (even inside its own borders), and these troubles might prompt the leadership in Moscow to concede defeat in Ukraine and withdraw from Donbas, clinging only to Crimea as the last line of political defense.
China is displeased but irrelevant
Despite its prominence on the global arena, Beijing has not been able to make any meaningful impact on the course of the Ukraine war and will produce barely any significant influence on its outcome. China clearly didn’t want this war to happen. Putin, when paying a visit to Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, apparently didn’t unequivocally inform Chinese President Xi Jinping about his plan to attack, so the proclaimed “friendship without limits” did actually hit very rigid limits in the matter of a few weeks. Granting elliptic political blessing and some propaganda coverage for Russia’s war-making, China refrained from delivering any material support and breaching the sanctions regime. It made only symbolic gestures in upgrading the military cooperation, carefully calculating the depth of decline of Russian capabilities in the Asia-Pacific theater.5
Sitting on the fence, while apparently a wise and indeed traditional Chinese policy, leaves Beijing with the problem of managing the consequences of Russia’s defeat, an outcome it would like even less than the predictable but still shocking beginning of the war. Putin’s desire to demolish the West-centric and U.S.-controlled world order has been a proposition too far for China, which has been a major beneficiary from this globalization. Yet, every step Russia takes down the de-escalation ladder and away from confrontation with the West, as described above, will signify a setback for China, which would need to re-evaluate the cumulative strength of U.S. alliances. It would make sense for Putin’s successors to indicate readiness for resuming talks with Japan on the South Kurils dispute, and such a half-step would inevitably deepen suspicions in Beijing. The Russia-China strategic partnership will most probably survive because it is based on the mutually beneficial economic flow of hydrocarbons and other goods (albeit, not that much services), unless Beijing yields to the temptation to exploit the weakness of its key partner and harvest some tangible fruits (such as territorial concessions) from its defeat.
One key parameter will be absent from this diminished future partnership: the personal ties between Putin and Xi, which could hardly be described as “friendship”, a feeling entirely foreign for both hard-nosed autocrats, but still amounted to an important positive driver in the historically difficult relationship. Xi missed the opportunity to warn Putin against the fateful invasion and he may not be able to prevent Putin’s downfall. Nobody among the few dozen of Putin’s possible successors has a useful rapport with Beijing. Their prime aspirations, centered on regaining access to the ill-gotten assets frozen by Western sanctions, will hardly endear them to the Chinese elites, who have just pledged anew their far-from-sincere commitment to the anti-corruption campaign at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress.
The notion of China’s irrelevance might seem mind-boggling given the sheer weight of this rising (even if not-so-fast) power in global affairs. But for influencing the trajectory of the Ukraine war, from its shocking start to the gradual disgraceful end, it might prove to be exactly the right one. One region where Chinese interests may be directly endangered by the instability caused by Russia’s debacle in Ukraine, is Central Asia, but even there Beijing will most probably be reluctant to attempt an intervention similar to Russian power projection in Kazakhstan in January 2022. Chinese academics, policy-planners, and indeed leaders have studied diligently (with ideological bias added) the drama of the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have good reasons to worry about Russia’s ability to stomach defeat, but a pro-active policy for preventing this undesirable outcome appears to be out of the question.
Charting the course of Ukraine’s victory in the devastating war is a far more positive intellectual exercise than assessing the consequences of Russia’s defeat, but the two must necessarily come together.
Charting the course of Ukraine’s victory in the devastating war is a far more positive intellectual exercise than assessing the consequences of Russia’s defeat, but the two must necessarily come together. Planning the reconstruction of the Ukrainian state is already a practical task, and many politicians will soon compete for the honor of having their names attached to this new edition of the Marshall Plan. The rout of Russian forces at Izyum and Lyman produced a surge of speculations about further retreats, and the looming disaster at Kherson invites further flights of strategic imagination, but analysis of Russia’s struggles with internalizing its defeat remains scarce. The focus of current commentary has shifted from a long war of attrition to a nuclear escalation, duly producing a rich menu of scenarios for an unmitigated catastrophe. The possibility of such an outcome is real, as is the possibility of a break-up of the Russian state, which some pro-Ukrainian influencers in the West even see as desirable. Some Russian experts express deep concerns, but other influential intellectual voices argue that the forthcoming defeat could grant Russia a chance to reinvent and re-energize itself as a respected and responsible power in wider Europe and dynamic Eurasia.6
Sketching a roadmap for Russia’s gradual exit from the lost war is not an application of optimistic wishful thinking, but a task of practical significance. At every turn of this bumpy road, the West — inevitably more divided on the problem of dealing with Russia than on the job of rebuilding Ukraine — will have opportunities to prevent bad crashes and encourage further progress. The point of departure in this positive planning is Putin’s disappearance from the Kremlin. This is by no means a far-fetched idea. His decision to rush the annexation of Ukrainian territories and start a mobilization failed to change the course of the war or to increase its public support, but instead aggravated Russia’s economic and political crisis. It is futile to speculate about how a coup could happen and who would form Russia’s new collective leadership, but it is essential to prepare for such a culmination of the squabbles among the desperate and corrupt elites already in the near future. Deterrence might appear the most appropriate and indeed feasible strategy for dealing with a post-Putin Russia, which will remain a source of high risks and a generator of violent instabilities, but multi-layered meaningful engagement will be necessary. Only committed collective efforts may effectively prevent a geopolitical catastrophe, which cannot possibly answer the interests of any of Russia’s many neighbors and partners.
- As Putin alternates nuclear threats with denials, the real risks of a first-use become more obscured by the constant debates on the nuclear theme, in which sober analyses are typically overtaken by speculations, like in Julian Borger, “Are Putin’s nuclear threat really likely to lead to Armageddon?” The Guardian, October 7, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/07/biden-putin-nuclear-threats-tactical-strike-us-response-analysis. One Russian contribution to these debates argued insightfully that Putin can break the taboo only if his days were counted; see Maksim Mironov, “Ядерноый удар имеет смысл, только если Путину осталось жить несколько месяцев” [Nuclear strike makes sense only if Putin has several months to live], Novaya Gazeta Europe, October 25, 2022, https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2022/10/25/iadernyi-udar-imeet-smysl-tolko-esli-putinu-ostalos-zhit-neskolko-mesiatsev.
- On the flaws in the quasi-modern design of BTGs, see Michael Kofman & Rob Lee, “Not built for purpose: The Russian military’s ill-fated force design,” War on the Rocks, June 2, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/06/not-built-for-purpose-the-russian-militarys-ill-fated-force-design/.
- Discussions in Moscow on this issue are subdued but not entirely silenced by the bragging about the presumed “wonder-weapons” in Russian arsenal; see, for instance, Victor Mizin, “Конец эпохи сокращения ядерных вооружений” [The end of era of nuclear arms reduction], Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 25, 2022, https://www.ng.ru/ideas/2022-08-25/7_8523_end.html.
- Many observers were inclined to see this battalion-size deployment as a major success in Russian strategy of asserting dominance over the Caucasus; see for instance, Nicu Popescu, “Russia’s win in Nagorno Karabakh is EU’s loss,” Politico, November 11, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-win-eu-loss-in-nagorno-karabakh/.
- Insightful Moscow analysts argue that China has no intention of coming to Russia’s rescue and that the prospect of a security alliance has become more remote; see Andrei Kortunov, “Россия перед лицом Китая: Красная Шапочка или Золушка?” [Russia faces China: Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella?], Global Brief, September 12, 2022, https://globalbrief.ca/category/geo-blogger/; Aleksei Maslov, “Россия поставила Китай перед жутким выбором” [Russia has set a terrible choice for China], MK.ru, April 5, 2022, https://www.mk.ru/politics/2022/04/05/rossiya-postavila-kitay-pered-zhutkim-vyborom.html.
- One competent analysis of Russia’s looming break-up is Nikolai Petrov, “Период полураспада” [Half-life period], The Insider, September 9, 2022, https://theins.ru/opinions/nikolai-petrov/254483. A moderately optimistic view on Russia’s economic prospect is Sergei Guriyev, “Поражение в войне может привести к реформам” [Defeat in the war may lead to reforms], Svoboda.org, August 7, 2022, https://www.svoboda.org/a/sergey-guriev-porazhenie-v-etoy-voyne-mozhet-privesti-k-reformam-/31975485.html. An overview of positive historical precedents is given in Andrei Zubov, “Империю не восстановить” [The empire cannot be restored], Novaya Gazeta Europe, September 15, 2022, https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2022/09/15/imperiiu-ne-vosstanovit.