Putin’s regime now faces a difficult choice; the war is dragging on and its undersupplied forces are likely becoming demoralized as they come under pressure from Ukraine’s well-organized and well-armed army. Putin now essentially has three options.

  1. First, he can seek a political solution, hoping to hold onto the territory Kremlin proxies captured in the eight years prior to his 2022 invasion. That’s an unattractive choice, especially since a bullish Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is hardly in the mood to negotiate favourable terms for Moscow. Internationally, it would be a humiliating blow to Russian prestige: a smaller state defeating a top-tier nuclear power in a major land war. Domestically, and more worrying for Putin, it would sharply call his leadership into question. Mounting signs of domestic discontent now even include St Petersburg regional deputies publicly calling for Putin to be tried for treason, another group from Moscow calling for him to step down, and even state media questioning the conflict.
  2. Option two for Putin is to try to reimpose a long and grinding campaign. But even if his forces can blunt the Ukrainian advance, Russia can achieve only a stalemate if the war returns to static artillery duels. That would buy time. It would wear down Ukrainian forces and allow him to test whether using energy as a weapon fragments the European Union’s resolve over the winter. However, at Russia’s current rate of losses its conventional forces will be exhausted beyond about 12 months. Both NATO and Ukraine would be well aware of that.
  3. Putin’s third option is to escalate: to send a message to both the West and Ukraine that he means business. Given the dubious nature of his other choices, that may be increasingly likely. But where? And, of equal importance, how?

Invade Moldova: Numerous experts have claimed Moscow might seek to annex Moldova’s breakaway region of Transniestria, plus further chunks of Moldovan territory. And in early September, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned of armed conflict if Moldova threatened the 2,000 Russian troops guarding Transniestria’s large ammunition dump at Cobasna. An actual invasion would be difficult, because it would require Russian control over the Ukrainian city of Odesa for land access. But an airborne reinforcement of its Transniestrian garrison might be tempting, or launching a hybrid warfare campaign to justify doing so. That said, invading would arguably be counterproductive, not least because it may prompt Moldova’s close partner Romania a member of NATO – to become involved.

Send a ‘stabilisation force’ to Kazakhstan: A new Russian intervention would certainly reinforce to restive Central Asian states that the Kremlin sees the region as its privileged sphere of influence. Indeed, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently hinted that northern Kazakhstan was next on Russia’s invasion list. Yet, with many of its forces already tied up in Ukraine, it’s questionable whether doing so would really be worth the effort.

Full or Partial mobilisation: The significant losses suffered by Russian forces might be covered by putting the nation on a war footing. A general mobilisation or partial mobilization would direct the economy towards military production, and provide an unending stream of personnel. Putin has avoided this so far, choosing a shadow approach instead, which has called up an extra 137,000 Russians. It does remain a live option, although it would mean admitting the conflict is a war (not a “Special Military Operation”), which would be domestically unpopular and result in untrained and ill-equipped conscripts flooding the front line. Further, it makes Russian willingness to punish the Ukrainians higher, both in terms of inflicting mass casualties on Ukraine through greater targeting of urban centers and indiscriminate levelling of Ukrainian cities.

Draw NATO in: Apart from the Moldovan scenario, Putin might elect to stage a “provocation” against a NATO state like Estonia. That would be a risky gambit indeed: given what we have seen of the performance of Russia’s conventional forces, even a limited war with NATO would hasten Russia’s defeat, and thus far Putin has assiduously avoided such provocations, apart from bluster and rhetoric. Perversely, that might allow Putin to salvage some domestic pride by claiming he lost to NATO rather than Ukraine. Yet his propaganda machine has already been falsely claiming NATO is directly involved in the fight against Russian forces. And if Putin isn’t prepared to initiate a peace process, then really only one escalation pathway remains.

Arrange a radiological ‘accident’: The Kremlin has obliquely hinted at this for a while. Russian forces have controlled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant near the city of Kherson since March, turning it into a military base. Rocket and artillery fire is actually not a huge concern, since the plant is heavily hardened. But if the plant loses connection to the Ukrainian grid – which has already happened several times – the reactors are only controlled by their own power generation, with no fail safe. Arranging a false flag “accident” blamed on Ukraine is certainly possible, raising the nightmare prospect of a new Chernobyl.

Use tactical nuclear weapons: It’s unlikely. But it can’t be ruled out. Realistically, using tactical nuclear weapons would be of dubious military value. There would be no guarantee NATO would back down, or that Ukraine would capitulate. It would be very difficult for Russia’s few remaining partners to continue supporting Putin, either tacitly (like China) or indirectly (like India). Indeed, while much has been made of Russia’s supposed “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, involving using nuclear weapons to force others to blink, there’s plenty of evidence it’s a myth designed to increase fear of nuclear war among Moscow’s adversaries. If he were to unleash tactical nuclear weapons, this would be a whole new ball game, risk of World War 3, and a chain of events which will be very difficult to manage.

In summary, Putin’s choices remain poor, both domestically and internationally. He may soon feel forced to pick between those that are unpalatable, and those that are risky. Unfortunately, identifying what he will choose is guesswork: we simply don’t know enough about how Putin’s mind works, or how he prioritizes information to make decisions. But perhaps there’s one hint. Throughout his tenure, Putin has consistently invited NATO and its allies to blink. At this crucial time, the West owes it Ukraine and for the sake of its own credibility, to ensure it does not give the Russian president what he wants.


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