What's the Worst Thing Putin Could Do Short of Nuclear War?

While Russian officials and state media have issued veiled and blatant nuclear threats since the start of the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the stakes last month when he asserted he was ready to use nuclear weapons in response to perceived threats to Russia's "territorial integrity."

That threat came as Russia was contending with several high-profile setbacks in the war that have only multiplied ever since Putin's nuclear threat. Ukrainian counteroffensives have been making gains in the Kharkiv, Donetsk and Kherson regions, while a U.S. think tank has cast doubt on whether a partial mobilization in Russia will be able to produce quality soldiers.

Russia's recent string of defeats, as well as Putin's statements, have ramped up fears that the Russian leader could resort to nuclear strikes in an effort to turn the tide of the war. But whether Putin will follow through on his threats remains to be seen.

Michael Kimmage, professor and chair of the Catholic University of America's history department, believes that while Putin's nuclear threats have the utility of instilling fear in his opponents and there's a low probability he will actually use the weapons, the warnings should not be brushed aside. Given that Putin has those weapons and the war has been going badly for Russia, he has the motive to potentially carry out nuclear strikes, Kimmage told Newsweek.

"I think certainly it should be taken very, very seriously, but hopefully in a kind of a non-alarmist fashion where we don't see this as the next inevitable step, but a very, very worrisome possibility," Kimmage said.

Short of nuclear attacks, Putin has few options to shake up the war strategically, and Kimmage does not believe that the Russian leader "can get on the phone and reverse that dynamic."

"I think that the real concern I would say, I don't know if this would give his army a leg up or it would just feel like it's doing something on his part, would be things that would fall between acts of war and terrorism," Kimmage said.

Putin's Alternatives to Nuclear War
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the signing ceremony with separatist leaders on the annexation of four Ukrainian regions at the Grand Kremlin Palace, on September 30, 2022 in Moscow. Last month, Putin asserted he was ready to use nuclear weapons in response to perceived threats to Russia’s “territorial integrity.” Contributor/Getty Images

Kimmage said that such acts could occur in Ukrainian territories, and could include instigating a "major ecological disaster" and using chemical or biological weapons against Ukrainian civilians, which could change the media narrative of the war but may not be too impactful on the war itself.

Putin could also lash out outside of Ukraine with serious cyberattacks on the U.S. and attacks on critical infrastructure in Europe. For example, the leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines that U.S. President Joe Biden has alleged were caused by Russian sabotage could exacerbate concerns over energy security this winter in parts of Europe where civilians are a "little less gung ho" about supporting Ukraine in the war.

Dan Soller, a former U.S. Army intelligence colonel, told Newsweek that the world should "expect the unexpected" when it comes to Putin's next moves.

Soller suggested that Russia could carry out provocations at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, where Russia and Ukraine have been trading accusations of dangerous shelling that could cause a nuclear disaster.

Like Kimmage, Soller also cited the situation with the Nord Stream pipelines. While Russia has denied any responsibility, the leaks have created "a level of uncertainty, anxiety and confusion in Western Europe, particularly when it comes to energy," he said.

Soller predicted that Putin could carry out those types of provocations moving forward, which could cause turmoil and uncertainty in the minds of Western Europeans while Putin does what he could to prevent a response from NATO.

Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek that short of nuclear attacks, Putin's alternative options could include "intensifying missile strikes against critical civilian infrastructure like power stations and dams, and command-and-control centers like the government quarter in Kyiv."

But this is unlikely to have any major impact on Putin's war effort because Russia has already been attacking critical infrastructure in Ukraine and "it has done very little to slow the Ukrainian advance," Zhukov added.

"To take a piece of critical infrastructure permanently out of commission, you need to hit the same site over and over again, day and night, to prevent all recovery and rebuilding efforts, rather than a series of one-and-done's as the Russians have been doing," Zhukov said. "Even if they were more successful in damaging critical infrastructure, this would make life very unpleasant for civilians, and would make the winter very cold, but by this point, the Russians should know that it won't be the 'knockout punch' they need."

Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed reports of Russia firing on civilian energy structures in Ukraine but asserted that being without food, gas or water was still preferable to Russian occupation in his country.

The "battlefield impact" of Russia potentially bombing of the Ukrainian presidential palace or parliament is "suspect," while "flattening" downtown Kyiv and the nuclear threats themselves are unlikely to truly break Ukrainian morale, Zhukov said.

"[Strategic bombing] can terrorize the population, and bring a country to rubble. But it is very difficult to capitalize on this destruction in a way that reorients the enemy's decision-making in favor of capitulation or negotiation," Zhukov said. "But that doesn't mean the Russians won't try."