Campus News

Russia’s possible next moves

All eyes are on Putin and his talk of nuclear weapons after Ukraine retakes areas and international support for Russia weakens.

Russian and Ukrainian flags separated by barbed wire.
“How nuclear weapons would play into all this is very unclear,” said Graeme Robertson, a Carolina expert on Russia and Ukraine. “I think we’re saved by the fact that such weapons are a great deterrent but they’re not very useful in general for strategic purposes. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m trying to go to sleep.” (Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is drawing a line across shifting military and political sand in an effort to hold occupied Ukrainian regions, according to Graeme Robertson, a Carolina expert on Russia and Ukraine.

Putin’s latest moves include calling up reservists and reacting to recent Ukraine military advances by announcing referendums that will lead to annexation of occupied regions. Meanwhile, support for the Russian invasion appears to be waning, especially from China and Turkey.

Perhaps most troubling is Putin’s statement on Tuesday that he is not bluffing about using nuclear weapons to thwart Ukraine’s efforts to regain its territories.

Graeme Robertson

Graeme Robertson

Robertson, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ political science department, researches and publishes on dissent and protest in Russia and Ukraine and is The Graduate School’s Harold J. Glass USAF Faculty Mentor/Graduate Fellow Distinguished Term Professor. He directs Carolina’s Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies.

The Well asked Robertson about developments in Ukraine and Russia.

Where, when and why is Russia planning to hold referendums?

They announced that they’re going to hold referendums next week in the regions that they hold, Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south. They hold most of Kherson, about 90% of it. They only hold about 40-50% of Zaporizhzhia, and they don’t hold that region’s capital, which is the town of Zaporizhzhia, itself. They’ve been talking about this, especially in Donetsk and the Luhansk, for months, for years. And the word from Moscow is that essentially Putin was not keen on moving to incorporate them into Russia proper until last weekend, when they saw the huge military losses. The Russians are moving quickly to organize polling stations and voting. Of course, these are completely sham elections and we know the results already in advance.

The military losses appear to have strengthened the hand of the pro-war faction in the Kremlin. Some senior officials from the security forces and people in the ruling party are very gung ho about the war. Also, the losses last weekend panicked officials in the Ukrainian territories that Russia holds. They are very afraid of what might happen to them should Ukraine take back control. So they’re going to move quickly to incorporate these territories into Russia. That would mean a change in rhetoric. Now, Ukrainian efforts to reclaim any of those territories will be spun by Moscow as an attack on Russia, which means that Russia considers itself entitled to use nuclear weapons.

Whether Russia would in fact respond with nuclear weapons is a huge question. But that’s what Putin is saying — insisting on Wednesday that this was no bluff. So the political response to last week’s military changes has been huge.

Is a decision to use nuclear weapons ultimately Putin’s or does he have an inner circle that would advise him on that specifically?

He’s clearly listening to different groups of people. He’s very close to some people in the security forces. For example, there’s a relatively new Russian security force called the National Guard, which is headed up by a former Putin bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, who appears to be particularly influential these days. But the decision on whether or not to use nuclear weapons depends on a few things.

First, we should not underestimate the Russian leadership and think that there’s some kind of ethical, moral or political barrier that they would not cross. I don’t have any doubt that if they thought it useful and productive for their strategy, then they would cross that boundary and use nuclear arms.

Second, fortunately, its hard to think of scenarios in which it actually would be useful to use a nuclear device. The strategic situation is such that it’s just not clear how using a nuclear device would advance Russian interests and justify the huge backlash its use would provoke. I’m not at all clear that there’s a scenario short of Ukraine forces getting to the Russian border proper or maybe Crimea in which they would use nuclear weapons. They may use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield in that case but even then, nuclear weapons are of limited value.

If Ukraine continues to advance, would President Zelensky want to go beyond the border or would he be more inclined to protect the border and start rebuilding his country?

If Ukraine was able to retake the territories that it held before February 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, they would consider that complete victory. They don’t have any ambitions beyond that. However, Russia would consider Crimea, I think, to be part of Russian territory, whereas Ukraine would consider it part of Ukraine. It is also unclear what the status of the Donbas territories would be. Officially, Ukraine wants to win back all its territory, but there may be some willingness to negotiate in the end. How nuclear weapons would play into all this is very unclear. I think we’re saved by the fact that such weapons are a great deterrent but they’re not very useful in general for strategic purposes. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m trying to go to sleep.

What are some broader international reactions to the latest developments?

That is all really interesting. Putin attended a summit of what’s called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is really a dictators’ club created between China, Russia and the Central Asian countries (India and Pakistan joined more recently). Usually at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization they trade operational information about policing opposition, about terrorist threats and those kinds of things. This week, however, they talked about the war extensively, and Putin for the first time ever acknowledged that China and other countries had concerns about the military operation. For him to say that in public, it must have been communicated very strongly in private.

Then, earlier this week, President Erdogan of Turkey said that Russia cannot expect to occupy any parts of Ukraine after the war ends and proposed himself as a mediator. Turkey is a key country that has been sitting on the fence but is, for now at least, leaning in a direction that puts some pressure on the Russians.