Would defeat in Ukraine spell the end for Vladimir Putin’s regime? Hudson Meadwell presents a thought experiment on the conditions required for the fall of Putin.
It is now approaching a year since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Far from securing the quick victory he desired, the conflict now threatens to undermine his regime.
Putin’s future will be defined by three distinct scenarios: a status quo scenario, where Putin is not replaced; a scenario where Putin is replaced in order to escalate the hostilities; and a scenario where Putin is replaced in order to withdraw/negotiate.
For Putin to be replaced, there needs to be a crisis in the regime – a substantial, profound fracture or split in the political-military hierarchy. The crisis needs to have these qualities to be of the kind that induces the second and third scenarios above. The crisis must imply a decisive rupture between those who prefer the world as it would be (or is expected to be) if Putin is not replaced and those who prefer the world as it would be (or is expected to be) if Putin is replaced.
These propositions imply that the basic question within the Russian regime eventually will be whether to escalate or negotiate, which in turn raises the question of under what circumstances this existential question will emerge. The notion of ‘circumstances’ here boils down in simplified form to when Russia is ‘ahead’, when Russia is ‘behind’, or when Russia is in a stalemate. If Russia is ahead, Putin is not vulnerable. If it is behind, he is vulnerable. If a stalemate continues, he may also be vulnerable.
My view is that none of these conditions, on their own, including Ukrainian military success, are likely to lead to his replacement. But there is a different question that must also be asked, namely when would Putin be most likely to issue an order or command for a tactical nuclear weapon to be used, or take the steps to issue such an order? Would this be when Russia is behind, in a stalemate, or ahead?
Nuclear weapons as a breaking point
A potential scenario where Putin is likely to be replaced can be sketched out. This would begin with Ukraine pushing ahead and breaking the current stalemate in the conflict. This means, in operational terms, some combination of Ukraine retaking the territory seized by Russia after the February 2022 invasion, establishing control over major areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and conducting military attacks of some form on Crimea.
Ukrainian success of this sort may lead Putin to give an order to use tactical nuclear weapons, or prepare to give an order, or merely to signal his intent within his coterie to initiate the procedures by which such a decision could be made and implemented. This would be the breaking point. The decisive fracture within the regime will occur at this point, if it is reached. This is a point at which there is a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’.
The breaking point will not be a culmination of incremental changes, such as the increasing effect of sanctions over time, or even incremental, cumulative losses on the battlefield. I do not believe that this would initiate the kind of rupture that is required to lead to a direct challenge and possible ousting of Putin from power.
The sharpest way in which this rupture/split might emerge and be crystallised may be if a command to use tactical nuclear weapons is issued, but there is refusal in the political-military hierarchy to implement that command. At this breaking point, either Putin remains in power and tactical nuclear weapons are used on the battlefield, or tactical nuclear weapons are not used because Putin has been replaced.
Replacement to escalate
Another scenario can be sketched out, consistent with the terms of this analysis, but I do not believe it should be recognised as a plausible state of affairs within this thought experiment because it rests on a characterisation of Putin’s belief system and motivational set that I reject.
In this scenario, the military situation on the field is as described above: Ukraine has broken through the stalemate. In this scenario, however, Putin resists the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and he is replaced for this reason by extreme hardliners who want to use tactical nuclear weapons in the war, essentially in an attempt to rescue the situation.
To put it simply, admittedly without much further discussion, this is implausible in my view because it underestimates the importance to Putin of retaking Ukrainian territory. If defeat is imminent, would Putin resist the use of nuclear weapons, which is what is implied here? No, in my view he would not.
Avoiding a nuclear conflict
The only way to avoid the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of imminent defeat when Putin is in power is for forward-looking elements of the regime to replace Putin, in anticipation of how they expect him to react to the likelihood of defeat and the prospect of territorial withdrawal.
On one hand, either these elements are forward-looking enough that they move to replace Putin earlier, before any command to use tactical nuclear weapons is made (anticipating what will happen if they don’t move early), or even before processes or procedures by which such an order is made are engaged, or, on the other hand, they refuse to implement such an order once the order has been put in motion and thus move to replace Putin later, rather than earlier.
There is another scenario implied by this analysis: Stalemate continues and Putin is led to use or to prepare to give an order to use tactical nuclear weapons to break the stalemate. Strictly speaking, this is a possibility but I do not regard stalemate as a condition that is likely to lead either to conflict within the regime about the use of nuclear weapons or to the ousting of Putin as the condition of Ukrainian military success.
Another way of putting these points is that, in this thought experiment, there is little likelihood of a Russian military retreat, under Putin, to pre-(2022) invasion borders, especially if that retreat means giving up the territory currently proclaimed as Russian-affiliated republics, not to mention if it means the return of Crimea to Ukraine, without an attempt to command the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
A military withdrawal can be imagined under Putin’s leadership, in my view, without the use of tactical nuclear weapons, only if Putin considers the self-declared republics and Crimea secure from Ukrainian takeover. In this scenario, he retreats to fight another day, while guaranteeing the security of these two republics and Crimea in the interim.
In that case, the two countries – Russia and Ukraine – will continue to be on a de facto war footing, even if they are not engaging directly on the battlefield as they are now, and their borders will be permanently weaponised/militarised. This would likely be viewed by Ukraine as a loss, as an inferior outcome of war, for compelling reasons, but nonetheless, it is a possible future and one in which, in this thought experiment, the contemplated use of tactical nuclear weapons does not occur.
The fall of Putin
This thought experiment then suggests that in order for Putin to be ousted, two desiderata must be satisfied. There must be a decisive Ukrainian military breakthrough, firstly. But second of all, that breakthrough must create a decisive crisis – a rupture in the leadership such that Putin is both directly challenged and successfully deposed.
In this thought experiment, that kind of crisis is most likely to emerge if Ukrainian military success induces Putin to move to seriously consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The price of ousting Putin then is this: his ouster depends on creating the conditions for the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.
The meaning of not ousting Putin is this: not ousting Putin implies in this thought experiment that the breaking point (as described above) has not been reached because the war is either in stalemate or Russia is ahead. If the breaking point is not reached because Ukraine does not break the military impasse, then, warfare will be protracted (‘stalemate’) or Ukraine will have been defeated, having failed to defend its national integrity. Russia’s use of force will have secured important gains.
Predicting the future of the war is not an exercise in futility but it is replete with ambiguity. Nonetheless, the thought experiment elaborated here may assist in identifying difficult dilemmas in the choices of Ukraine and its allies. This latter qualification, it should be noted, has the consequence of acknowledging that this thought experiment is perspectival. It does not provide a ‘God’s-eye’ view of the world.