Around the world—in European capitals, in Washington DC, and even in Moscow—the outcome of the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive seems to have already been largely determined.
As recently as March, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, described a “grinding, attritional war in which neither side has a definitive military advantage.” Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, was recently quoted cautioning realism, saying, “There is not going to be a single magic-wand moment when Russia collapses.” The Russians believe much of the same, calculating that they can hold off Ukraine defensively and play the waiting game until launching another offensive when Western support has waned.
But what if all of this turns out wrong? What if Ukraine ends up routing Russian occupation positions relatively swiftly and effectively, with the Russian military in a hopeless retreat?
Given recent reporting, it is not altogether clear that the United States and its allies are fully prepared for such a contingency, which, although perhaps less likely than the alternatives, is not as unlikely as many may think; and if leaders are not prepared, they should start preparing now, so as to avoid finding themselves on the back foot in a crisis of significant consequence.
To start, there are a variety of reasons why Ukraine might perform better than expected in its coming counteroffensive effort.
Although its backers have not supplied Ukraine the same long-range missiles that allowed it to recapture Kherson and Kharkiv last fall, the West has nonetheless provided training, intelligence, and material capabilities key to a successful counteroffensive. This includes new air defense systems, 230 tanks, 1,550 armored vehicles, and drones capable of striking behind Russian lines. New Ukrainian units are also training in combined-arms techniques. Although such advanced maneuver warfare has previously proven difficult, even impossible, on the battlefield due to Russian communications jamming, overcoming previous limitations could provide Ukrainian troops a key advantage. The ultimate test will be if Ukrainian materiel and training can punch through or work around the dense defensive layers Russia has built up over the winter.
Moreover, it is not clear that Russia is actually prepared to successfully defend its gains in eastern and southern Ukraine. Although the Russians seem to be improving their ability to utilize drones and artillery fire, the competence of Russian commanders has been wanting since the beginning of the conflict. In addition, Russia lacks well-trained soldiers, has expended much of its cruise missile stores, has depleted ammunition faster than it can be replaced, and has experienced an astonishing one hundred thousand casualties since last December.
Lastly, that Ukraine might surprise the world should itself come as no surprise. Since the beginning of the war—when most observers thought Ukraine would last barely a week—Ukraine’s will to fight, its societal resilience, and its leadership have all demonstrated the critical importance of these difficult-to-measure factors in military success.
Despite the above, it appears neither Russia nor the United States believes the counteroffensive will be overwhelmingly successful. In internal meetings, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has confidently emphasized that because it enjoys numerical advantages in personnel and equipment, Russia will eventually prevail. However, this is the same failed logic that underpinned expectations of a quick Russian victory at the beginning of the war. A sole focus on personnel and equipment neglects an adequate accounting of training, morale, logistical support, and leadership.
Additionally, Shoigu’s confidence in such discussions may be meant to appease Putin. A common weakness of tyrants is the uncanny ability to surround themselves with sycophants, a weakness of Putin’s which seems to have only grown with time.
The United States also appears to be preparing for stalled Ukrainian advances, as discussions within the Biden administration are already well underway to prepare the ground for related negotiations. This, more than anything, is the result of an increasing realization that Ukraine’s supporters cannot continue to supply armaments to Ukraine at needed levels without diminishing their own military preparedness.
Neither side, then, appears to be preparing for the event of a quick and cascading Russian loss.
If the counteroffensive is surprisingly successful, Putin will be forced to respond in one of two ways—negotiation or escalation. Given Putin’s belief in the value of a long-game scenario, his willingness to absorb significant costs, and the potentially disastrous domestic political consequences of unfavorable negotiations, it is more likely than not that Putin would choose escalation. In a situation where Russian forces are routed, Putin would face only two realistic escalation options: throw more human bodies at the Ukrainians or use a nuclear weapon.
In the case of the former option, Russia already appears to be preparing new rounds of mobilizations, with the Wagner Group restarting troop recruitment from Russian prisons. However, as was recently seen in Bakhmut and elsewhere, new Russian soldiers are poorly trained. Conscripts are thus often killed in droves—and not even the Russians have an infinite supply of human lives. New recruits could slow the tide of a Ukrainian advance, but if momentum is on Ukraine’s side, it may be unlikely these new recruits could decisively weigh in Russia’s favor.
That leaves nuclear escalation. Much debate has surrounded Russian nuclear doctrine, particularly when, how, and why Russia might choose to employ a nonstrategic weapon on the battlefield. Nonetheless, one aspect of doctrine Russia has been consistent on is that Russia would at least consider the use of a nuclear weapon if Russian territory is being attacked. Since its annexation of Crimea almost a decade ago, Russia very much considers Crimea part of the Russian homeland. Therefore, any serious threat to Crimea, at a minimum, runs the risk of nuclear use. This risk is significantly enhanced by an effective counteroffensive threatening Crimea in which momentum appears to be clearly with the Ukrainians.
Thus, the stakes of such a scenario are extremely high. Regardless of likelihoods, the United States and its allies must have a response prepared, which should reflect three imperatives.
Firstly, the United States must continue to signal to Russia that the consequences of using a nuclear weapon would be disastrous and likely involve direct US military intervention. The United States will be helped in this endeavor if China stands by its statements, as outlined in a recent twelve-point peace plan for Ukraine, that the sovereignty of all countries should be respected and a nuclear weapon cannot be used in the conflict. Importantly, China has stated it does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, blunting Russian arguments that a threat to Crimea might be considered a legitimate threat to the Russian homeland.
Secondly, the United States must use its leverage over Ukraine to ensure that Ukrainian forces do not advance into Crimea until an opportunity for negotiations has presented itself. Prominent media voices such as journalist Anne Applebaum and retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges have consistently advocated for the retaking of Crimea, arguing that such a move would effectively end the war. This may or may not be true, but the risks of nuclear escalation do not today warrant such an aggressive strategy. The Biden administration’s unwillingness to provide Ukraine long-range missiles such as those used in last fall’s counteroffensive seems to confirm this hesitancy.
Thirdly, the groundwork for any negotiations must involve China, Russia’s only great power backer. The incentive for China is obvious. Working with the United States and the belligerent parties to end the war would boost China’s prestige and credibility in Europe at a time when many in the West are walking a tightrope on how, where, and when to engage China. This opens the possibility that China might be a fair partner in a peace deal, something Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is now welcoming. Thus, in addition to preparing for other contingencies, the United States should find ways sooner rather than later to work with the Chinese on how crisis management might proceed in the event of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive. This advanced preparation and communication will serve as a counterweight to the potential for catastrophic disaster.
Critics of this more hesitant approach will largely say that it is up to Ukraine when and how to proceed with military operations and when to negotiate. They will say, factually, that Crimea is part of Ukrainian sovereign territory and that reclaiming the peninsula would not just end the war but would also be the ultimate justice against Russian aggression. They will say that because Putin’s threats of nuclear use have so far proven empty they will remain empty.
Such criticisms, while to some degree valid, are dangerous and shortsighted. The use of a nuclear weapon would drastically change not just the war, but the entire world. Given what we know about Putin, it is in fact plausible that a tactical nuclear weapon could be used, particularly if Crimea is threatened by advancing Ukrainian forces. This threat, moreover, is amplified depending on how quickly momentum on the battlefield shifts.
That is precisely why preparations must be made now in case, once again, the world is surprised at Ukraine’s ability to fight back against Russian aggression.
Alex Betley works as an aerospace and defense consultant in Washington, DC. He holds an MALD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, where he was an international security studies research fellow and senior editor with the Fletcher Security Review.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: A Ukrainian soldier during training at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, May 3, 2022 (credit: Sgt. Spencer Rhodes, Florida Army National Guard)