If Putin loses the war, what happens to the rest of the world?

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Putin might lose the war. What would that look like for Russia, Ukraine and the world?

In October 1989, I was in what was then West Germany. It was one month before the Berlin Wall was breached — a stunning moment that would lead in short order to the collapse of communist East Germany and the reunification of the German state less than a year later. In hindsight, the discussions I had in West Germany that fall were almost as remarkable as the globe-changing events that followed; every German leader I met with then — to a person — insisted that Germany would not and could not be reunited in their lifetimes.

I was there with then-CIA Director William Webster, meeting with senior intelligence and government officials to better understand the changes sweeping across the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe. These people simply could not conceive of a reunified German state and an effective end to the Cold War, nor could they envision the path that might take them there. Never mind that CIA analysts were telling me that the “German Question” — a phrase implying reunification — was back on the table.

I share this history to make two points. First, as the physicist Niels Bohr famously said, “prediction is difficult — especially about the future.” Second, I think we have arrived at a moment in the Ukraine War that shares much in common with 1989 in West Germany, in that this is a time when all of us have trouble imagining the future with any certainty, and some of us may be looking ahead with too much certainty, just as those German officials did in 1989. And as a result, many of us may look back and wonder how we missed what was coming.

Such forward thinking may be especially difficult for the Russians themselves. I sensed this in recent off-the-record meetings with very knowledgeable, internationally minded Russians, people who strongly oppose the war (”off-the-record” meaning I can discuss what they said, but not who said it). These are sophisticated policy analysts who left Russia as President Vladimir Putin went to war. While they fully understand that the war in Ukraine is going very badly for their country, and that Russia might actually lose, they can’t quite get their heads around how that would look and where it might lead.

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In particular, the idea that Putin’s regime might collapse is almost impossible for them to visualize. Putin and his system are so deeply embedded in their experience of Russia that even the most clear-eyed Russians I have spoken with believe that even if the Russians lose (I can’t speak to whether they think a win is still possible), Putin would hang on to power in some weakened state.

They may be right. But increasingly, such assumptions look as shaky as the assumptions made by those West German officials more than three decades ago. We — and they — should not be surprised by a Ukrainian victory, and if that happens, we should not be surprised to see some startling changes within the Kremlin itself. Back in April, when the war was still young, I wrote for Grid that having watched Putin closely for 20 years, “this is the first time that I doubt his ability to survive politically.” I stand by those words now, particularly given what we have seen since: Russia’s catastrophic defeats on the battlefield, Putin’s narrowing of diplomatic exit ramps with his sham annexation of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, an emerging opposition in Russia, new reservations expressed by Putin’s foreign allies, the desperation shown by his highly unpopular “partial mobilization,” and the stampede for the exits that the mobilization has inspired.

This weekend’s explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge is both a symbolic and strategic blow to Putin and his war. Symbolic, because the bridge — which links the Russian-held Crimean peninsula to Russia — was a point of pride for the Russian leader. He attended the opening in 2018. It’s a strategic nightmare because the bridge is a critical supply route for the Russians in Crimea.

It’s only the latest in a series of events that raise questions about what a Russian defeat might look like — and then what it will mean for the region and the world.

These are questions as profound as those the world wrestled with when the Berlin Wall came down. Perhaps more so.

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Might Russia lose?

There is no question: Ukrainians have the battlefield momentum right now. Their forces are advancing on two fronts, either taking or threatening territory that Putin announced just 10 days ago would be Russian territory “forever.” The U.S. and NATO weapons flow continues. Reports of chaos and even anger within the Russian army come almost daily.

I believe some version of defeat is increasingly likely for Russia. I base that on all that we now see, and on my own and others’ experiences with war.

Militarily, the Russians have failed in their theater-level strategy — unrealistic estimates of the force required, an absence of senior enlisted leaders empowered to make decisions at the front, and a gross underestimate of the Ukrainian and NATO responses. The Russians have also failed on the logistical front — here, I take my cue from University of St. Andrews scholar Phillip O’Brien, who has studied World War II logistics more extensively than anyone I know. He believes that Russia will not be able to train its new raw (and perhaps unwilling) recruits adequately, nor equip them properly, in time to swing the battlefield momentum.

Then there is the more elusive metric: the will to fight. My own understanding of this comes from direct engagement in one war (Vietnam) and indirect involvement in two others (Afghanistan and Iraq). Ultimately, any war becomes very personal and its success rests heavily on whether individual soldiers are ready to risk their lives to defeat an opponent. An army arrives at that readiness through some combination of strong identification with a cause, a government that commands respect, and a conviction that one must destroy the adversary to save oneself and one’s comrades. By now, it is clear that on all these fronts, the Ukrainians hold the overwhelming advantage.

So a Ukrainian victory over the vaunted Russian army is increasingly possible.

What defeat might look like

How to define a victory for Ukraine? Or, from the other side, what would defeat look like for Russia? To some degree, only Putin himself can answer that — given that he has shifted his war aims and narrative multiple times since the first troops rolled in. But I think he would see it as a defeat if his forces were driven back to the small areas of Donetsk and Luhansk where Russian proxies held sway as Putin’s invasion kicked off on Feb. 24.

That said, the way things are going, “defeat” could look worse from the Russian perspective; Ukraine may push further and expel Russian forces from those territories Putin held prior to the war. It is harder perhaps to imagine a Ukrainian recapture of Crimea, which Putin seized in 2014, but even this is no longer out of the question.

It would be hard for Putin to spin any of these outcomes into “mission accomplished”; as Grid has reported, some of his most stalwart pro-war propagandists have begun questioning Russia’s performance and demanded that more territory be taken, no matter the costs to Russian soldiers. For many vocal and influential Russians, any of the above scenarios would be seen as an unacceptable humiliation.

Several analysts have argued that Russia still has a vast military that it has yet to commit, and which dwarfs the Ukrainian capability. But where is it? Is Putin saving this card for a larger battle with NATO — even though he calls the battle with Kviv “existential”? And if he really holds that military strength, why must he mobilize 300,000 untrained and unwilling Russians to continue the fight in Ukraine?

Something doesn’t add up.


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The nuclear fears

If the Russians lose, or appear on the verge of losing, then what?

Putin has pointed repeatedly to his nuclear arsenal and called its potential use “no bluff.” Whether he would go this far is simply unknowable, perhaps even to Putin himself. Russian doctrine does allow for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event its conventional forces are overwhelmed, but this has never been tested on the battlefield. The White House and Pentagon have surely been gaming out such scenarios and potential responses; no doubt their European counterparts have been as well. Perhaps the best odds anyone can give regarding Putin going nuclear is that the chances are not zero; the West would be foolish to rule it out.

If Putin did resort to nukes, what would the U.S. and its allies do? I have no “inside” information, but I suspect the answer would depend on factors such as where Putin strikes, and with what kind and yield of weapon (ground attack or air detonation, e.g.). There would be no shortage of potential retaliation targets — as suggested by some retired U.S. military officers — ranging from supply depots to Black Sea bases and many others. The U.S., which has impressive conventional capabilities, would not have to “go nuclear” to make its point in a devastating way. So, while I do not know what the U.S. contingency plan is, I’m confident there is one.

What should the U.S. do in this nightmare scenario? My own advice — in the event Putin deploys a small tactical nuclear weapon: Don’t be hasty. Condemn the act in the most serious terms but hold any retaliation long enough to let the world and his fellow Russians absorb what he has done. How long to hold fire would depend partly on how the world reacted; for one thing, a Russian nuclear attack would confront China and Putin’s other enablers — all of whom oppose any “first use” of nuclear weapons — with an act they would almost certainly deplore and probably condemn outright. U.S. retaliation might be essential eventually, but an instant response would raise unprecedented questions of nuclear escalation. It would probably also be twisted by Putin and some of his foreign backers who’ve argued that he was pushed to war by U.S. and NATO policies.

The fall of Putin?

It is no longer unthinkable that Putin will lose power in the event of a catastrophic outcome in Ukraine — the collapse of the Russian military or its expulsion from the country. Exactly how this would unfold is not clear, which helps explain why even those sophisticated Russians I spoke with find the scenarios so hard to fathom.

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Under Putin’s own last round of constitutional changes, in the event that a sitting president leaves office, the prime minister (currently an obscure former taxation official hand-picked by Putin), would become president for 90 days or until a new election can be held. Of course, the problem with this orderly scenario is that no one sees Putin allowing it to happen.

But if Russia suffers defeat in Ukraine, the Russian elite and all those ultranationalists who dominate the media would have to contemplate a world in which Russia and many of its leaders remain under Western sanctions, with a weak and globally isolated leader at the helm, and Russia carrying little weight on the world stage. Would they accept that? Their capacity for sycophancy has been almost boundless, but it is already fraying; calls for a more competent and brutal campaign have filled the airwaves lately, and public criticism of the mobilization has been heard all over the vast reaches of the Russian Federation.

One possibility is that as the bad news persists, Russian military and security service leaders might act as a kind of informal “politburo” and inform Putin that they can no longer support him, and that it is time for him to retire to his dacha with some honor intact.

That may prove to be wishful thinking as well. Other outcomes are possible — including a breakdown of public order — but with Russia’s highly centralized system and the security services willing so far to brutally put down all forms of protest, that scenario is even harder to imagine.

Finally, some Russians — struggling to imagine the aftermath of a Russian loss — sketch yet another scenario, one that might be described as a slow fading away for the Russian leader. A weakened Putin would cling to power, many more Russians would leave the country, and Russia would for a time simply exist as a dispirited and weak country.

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This is what Putin’s monumental miscalculation has wrought for a country that, whatever its shortcomings, has no shortage of proud traditions and gifted citizens, and which during his early years in power had attained a place of significant influence and respect in the world. Russia has arrived at a critical, even existential, crossroads at least three times since World War I — during its 1917 revolution, facing the German onslaught on its territory that began in 1941, and then in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These were huge and very different challenges, and Russia is in some ways still working its way through the consequences of all those upheavals.

With his Ukraine invasion, and the folly of his many moves since, Putin appears to be driving the country toward another crossroads. The outcome looks every bit as uncertain and potentially destabilizing as those earlier cataclysmic events.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • John McLaughlin
    John McLaughlin

    Special Contributor

    John McLaughlin is a former acting director of the CIA and a distinguished practitioner in residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.