Unpacking the Endgame: Examining the Possibility of Nuclear Escalation and Regime Change in the Russia-Ukraine War

Unpacking the Endgame: Examining the Possibility of Nuclear Escalation and Regime Change in the Russia-Ukraine War

In my previous blog post, I pushed back at an analysis of how the Russia-Ukraine war may end by Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Coulton at the 2022 Daniliw Seminar at the University of Ottawa. I am troubled by their decision to “hold constant,” to bracket two key contingencies of the war: the possibility of nuclear escalation by Russia and the eventuality of regime change in Moscow. I don’t agree that we can think about the war’s end without considering these two issues. What happens, then, if we do consider them?

My first proposition (P1) is that the Russian regime cannot afford to not win this war. But Russia has already shown that it cannot win it (P2). Indeed, it is hard to see how Russia wins even as it escalates the war. But this is unlikely to deter a regime that needs a way forward. However, it does not necessarily mean reaching for the nuclear trigger, at least not immediately. Last September’s partial mobilization and the long-range missile and drone offensive that began in October are already escalating the conflict. If these don’t accomplish Moscow’s aims, going nuclear will become more likely.

Short of nuclear escalation, Russia is looking at continuing failures and increasing loss of Russian lives. This creates a collision course between the regime and the population (P3), possibly leading to regime change. In other words, Russia is politically unable to sustain a protracted high-level conflict. Faced with prospects of collapsing and/or being overthrown, Putin/the regime will need to escalate further or lower the temperature, turn the conflict into low-intensity protracted warfare, essentially returning to the situation that prevailed in the Donbas since 2014. If de-escalation is tried and does not work, the regime will find re-escalation irresistible unless events and regime change overtake it.

But successful re-escalation will not come from conventional warfare, as the Russian conventional war machine has already proved that it is not effective (P4). Russia’s army was never stronger than at the beginning of the invasion and, with every week that goes by, its capabilities are degraded, its morale weakens, its battlefield position worsens. On the other side, Ukrainian forces grow stronger, fiercer and better equipped, even as they also suffer heavy casualties. Over many months, Russia’s “partial mobilization” will continue to bring large numbers of ill-trained, ill-led, ill-equipped, unmotivated and scared soldiers to the front – a front that will be increasingly lethal for them as increasingly advanced and powerful western weapons make their way to the Ukrainians. Further conscription of more Russians, whose training, equipment and morale can only get worse, will only result in more deaths on both sides but will not transform Russia’s prospects. As Israel has demonstrated for more than half a century, a smaller fighting force’s quality – in training, motivation, and weaponry – will trump much larger but essentially weaker ones. 

Even as Russia’s ground forces have demonstrated their ineffectiveness, its Air Force and Navy have been unhelpful on the battlefield. They cannot contribute in a consequential way to Russia’s battlefield effort (P5). If they were able to do more in the way of combined arms operations supporting and protecting the ground troups, they would already be doing it. What the Russian Air Force and Navy are capable of, however, is work at long distance, destroying civilian infrastructure and killing civilians. This is the conventional escalation that they are capable of (P6), and that appears set to continue. At the level of a whole country and relying on long-range weapons, this is the 21st-century equivalent of siege warfare. Breaking the will of the Ukrainian people would seem to be the only plausible goal of this approach. Still, we have seen that each Russian escalation only makes Ukrainians angrier and more determined to resist and win.

All this leaves Russia with only the option of de-escalation toward a stalemate, other than nuclear escalation (P7). But experience tells us that Vladimir Putin never de-escalates. Also, Ukraine’s interest is to resist slipping into a low-intensity stalemate: dependent as it is on its allies’ active and material support and its people’s resilience in the face of incredible suffering, it cannot afford to return to a frozen conflict. With a weakened Russia seeking to slow things down, Ukraine will want to press its advantage, which leaves us with nuclear escalation.

If de-escalation is tried and does not work, the [Russian] regime will find re-escalation irresistible unless events and regime change overtake it.

What are the likely outcomes of these propositions, then?

  • The Ukrainian way of war (fast-moving, decentralized fighting by small units) would neutralize the battlefield impact of a tactical nuke, leaving its main role as psychological rather than military. There is some reason to think that Ukrainian tactics may be changing, given the pitched battle for Bakhmut and the large amount of Western armour on the way to Ukraine in preparation for spring offensives. For this reason, even with a robust supply of Western armour, Ukraine must avoid getting dragged into massed, large-scale tank battles. Based on the current state of opinion and the fact that Ukrainians are already preparing for a tactical nuclear strike, we can expect that they will be made angrier than they already are by such an act. Western capitals indicate credibly that their resolve would be strengthened rather than weakened.
  • The really scary scenario, given the anticipated military and political failure of using a battlefield nuke (which the Russian General Staff should be able to foresee), is of a city-killing strike or, somewhat less destructively, a tactical nuke deployed over a city.
  • Further international isolation of Russia if it goes nuclear: it seems highly likely that China’s and India’s leaders – among other Russian “friends” – have warned President Putin not to go there. If he does, the already weary Chinese and Indians will pull back once and for all.
  • Going nuclear would be a sign of fear and desperation: it seems plausible that, as a result, the scales would fall off many Russians’ eyes – both within the elite and among the general population. This would be significantly helped by Russia’s final isolation and mounting hardships for Russians. One way or another, such a government has no future.

In the end, because Russia will be unable to win the war, we are looking at regime change – either preceded by nuclear escalation or preventing it. This raises the stakes massively on what happens in Russia over the coming months: the world needs Russian regime change before Moscow has run out of attempts to stall and of all forms of escalation other than nuclear.

What does this say about Charap and Colton’s analysis? Fundamentally, it was not entirely clear from Charap and Colton’s presentation what the link might be between anchoring their analysis in the academic literature and its ideal types, on the one hand, and holding constant nuclear escalation and regime change on the other. There seems no logical necessity leading from one to the other – except perhaps an impulse to steer clear of the situation’s highly contextual, hypothetical features. But end-game scenarios cannot avoid being highly context-dependent; how can their study avoid it?

I am reminded of a set of alternatives that I came across at the beginning of my academic career as a sociologist: that the research agenda in any discipline of the social sciences can be either discipline-driven or society-driven. Both have advantages and drawbacks, and we can think of their opposition as existing on a scale of more or less rather than entirely one-or-the-other. Still, it has always been obvious to me that my interests are very much on the society-driven side. And my analysis here very much follows that bent, as I am interested in real-world contingencies far more than the academic literature’s categories. Charap and Colton’s analysis, for its part, is discipline-driven. This does not have to be a bad thing, but in this case, it does seem to have led them to ignore some things that should not be ignored.


Check out CIPS’ ongoing coverage of the war in Ukraine here.

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