Putin's endgame: Will it be stalemate, nuclear war — or regime change in Moscow?

Putin is a "rational actor," says scholar Matthew Schmidt — but he still might use nuclear weapons to avoid defeat

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 22, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | A view of destruction at site after Russian attacks struck a shopping mall, in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 21, 2022. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | A view of destruction at site after Russian attacks struck a shopping mall, in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 21, 2022. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Most people have heard the most famous truisms about armed conflict. No plan, we are told, survives contact with the enemy. In any war, truth is the first casualty. Of course, there is "the fog of war."

Those truisms are playing out in real time in Russia's war against Ukraine. Much of the American and Western media is focused on sensational stories and images of human struggle and loss, rather than on the larger picture of what is really happening on the ground in this grinding, brutal conflict. Coverage is dominated by dueling propaganda narratives in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a saint and his besieged nation is a "brave little Belgium" (a First World War reference) while Vladimir Putin is an "irrational" bully, driven solely by a desire for mayhem and evil.

Digital media means that we see nearly real-time coverage of events on the ground in Ukraine — but that has produced at least as much confusion — if not more — among the general public than traditional media coverage. In total, much of the global public's understanding of what is actually happening in the Ukraine conflict has been clouded by information overload.

Punditry has gone into overdrive: A global crisis attracts experts, both genuine and self-appointed, who are trotted out by the 24/7 cable news machine to offer sometimes questionable or dubious "insights" to a global public hungry for answers.

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We hear, of course, the usual narratives of American exceptionalism: Russia's war against Ukraine has proven again that the United States is an indispensable nation and has reclaimed its place as leader of the free world.

One thing is clear: the historical importance of Ukraine, and of this war, is beyond reasonable dispute. As Yaroslav Hrytsak recently wrote in the New York Times: 

Ukraine is once again at the center of a potentially global conflict. World War I, as the historian Dominic Lieven put it, "turned on the fate of Ukraine." World War II, according to the legendary journalist Edgar Snow, was "first of all a Ukrainian war." Now the threat of a third world war hinges on what could happen in Ukraine…. After all, the struggle for Ukraine, as history tells us, is about much more than just Ukraine or Europe. It is the struggle for the shape of the world to come.

In an effort to make more sense of the confusing and rapidly changing events in Ukraine, I recently spoke with Matthew Schmidt, a professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven. Schmidt is an expert on Russia, defense, intelligence and foreign policy who has taught strategic and operational planning at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College. He has also taught at the Army War College and served as a representative to Ukraine's presidential election after the 2014 Maidan Revolution. His analysis and commentary have been featured on CNN, NBC News, Fox News, CBC News, CBS News and other outlets.

In this conversation, Schmidt explains why Russia's invasion of Ukraine has gone so badly, leaving Putin's military in a stalemate and on the verge of defeat. He also argues that, contrary to the analysis offered by many commentators, Putin himself is a rational actor, whose decisions are meant to advance his goal of a form of Russian manifest destiny that places his nation at the center of human history.

Schmidt issues an ominous warning: He believes Putin may order the use of battlefield nuclear weapons against Ukraine as a way of forcing a surrender and peace on his terms. With Russia's invasion force blunted by fierce Ukrainian resistance, Putin is targeting cities and other population centers for destruction in an effort to force Zelenskyy to sue for peace.

At the end of this conversation, Schmidt describes Zelenskyy as the true leader of the free world and a model of leadership that will be studied decades into the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As an expert in international relations and military affairs, when you look at Russia's war in Ukraine what do you see?

I see a war of independence that started in 2004 and will come to an end here. I do not believe it's just a war of independence in Ukraine. In the end, this all ends in the streets of Moscow. The shooting may stop in a year, it may stop in five years, or it may take considerably longer. But this is the event that has to bring down Putin. I think Ukraine frees Russia, eventually.

In terms of the mainstream American news media, 24/7 news cycle and all these talking heads and pundits, what are they getting wrong about the war?

The overall narrative frame was incorrect. We see this with all the retired generals who are on TV making their rounds. These generals are describing the war in Ukraine in terms of realpolitik. They take Putin's claims about Ukraine being in NATO seriously. Ukraine becoming part of NATO does not change the strategic balance.

The other incorrect assumption was that Russia was going to take Ukraine easily, that it was somehow inevitable. Too many observers misunderstood the nature of the Ukrainian military and how, in a good way, their society was militarized over eight years.

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Putin talks as though we're going to roll tanks to Moscow from eastern Ukraine, which is just absurd. What such claims reveal is that Putin doesn't understand modern warfare. Stupidity is always a causal possibility here as well. Or Putin is engaging in maskirovka, this idea that you lie and deceive your enemy. One can even lie to their own people in the pursuit of this greater good.

The other error is a willingness by too many supposed experts to disregard the fact that Putin is driven by a vision, a form of manifest destiny.

What I find frustrating is the business of punditry itself. These people go from being supposed experts on the pandemic a few weeks ago to now being "experts" on military affairs and international relations. Some of the loudest and most confident voices do not have much specific expertise on matters of war and violence and politics.

You can do a lot of harm if you have access to mass media and you're not using that power to properly educate the public. When I am interviewed, I think of myself as a teacher. My class isn't in front of me in person, it's on the other side of that camera. I have 30 seconds to say something that will help people better understand this confusing and frightening situation.

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Too many pundits go on TV and do interviews and focus on how they have 30 seconds for the the camera to be pointed at them. They are thinking about how to make this time about me, because this is my career now — or my second career in the case of retired generals or others with a similar background. Many commentators actually seem to be excited when they talk about the war in Ukraine. In my opinion, that is dangerous in terms of what it does to U.S. policy.

What are some analyses you have seen that are just pure hyperbole? Are there others that perhaps underplay the real dangers?

I'm not sure there is much hyperbole anymore. At the start of the war, the discussions about the potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons were hyperbolic. We have seen his tone change. We now have to take Putin's threats seriously and consider the most extreme possible outcomes.

I do not believe that Putin is going to nuke London and New York. I think that the real threat is the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Because to me, what is driving Putin is his vision of manifest destiny for Russia and the larger region. I also believe that this vision is quasi-religious. What happens with secular "religious" fanatics, people possessed by some sense of destiny and vision, is that they often end up as martyrs and are willing to do extreme things. That is what is truly frightening to me.

There's good cause for people to be scared, but again, they are scared of the wrong thing. People are scared that New York is going to be nuked, instead of battlefield weapons being dropped across Ukraine, breaking that taboo.

Why would Russia deploy battlefield nuclear weapons? Why risk that spiral of escalation?

The danger is that Putin is losing the war. The Russians have — this comes from the Soviet era — written into their doctrine a theory called "escalate to de-escalate." Putin could escalate the war by using battlefield nukes to bring Zelenskyy to the table, who would then say that the cost to society, to his people, of doing this is now greater than the desire to hold on to their unity, their sovereignty as a nation. That's one way Putin could do it. He could use battlefield nukes in order either to push the West to act as an arbiter in negotiations with Zelenskyy, or to back the West off.

As long as he's using nukes inside Ukraine, it's a reasonable bet that the West won't intervene. Putin can use those nukes to regain control of what we in military planning call "operational tempo." Here Putin is forcing the other side to react to him instead of vice versa. At present, the Ukrainians and Russians are evenly matched to some degree. The Ukrainians are forcing the Russian military to react. The Russian military was not ready for that. But of course, using tactical nukes would radically change that balance.

Nobody starts a war planning to lose. What were Putin and his generals' assumptions? How did it go so wrong for them?

They thought they could take Ukraine in a few days and that they would have Kyiv and functional control of the rest of the country. They woefully underestimated the fighting spirit and commitment of the Ukrainian military and of ordinary Ukrainians. Putin and his generals also misunderstood that the Ukrainian military always had a two-line strategy. The first was to defend the borders as long as possible. The second was to fall back in a cohesive way so that those military units were still able to operate in an orderly way and then transition into guerrilla war. The civilian reserves are integral to Ukraine's defenses as well.

What was the Russian military's plan, on the tactical level?

I train people at the operational and strategic level of war. The mistakes the Russian military made are at that operational level. As a practical matter, there are errors in how they are trying to bring together a series of tactical operations into a whole that in turn leads to a strategic aim.

It appears that the Belarusian troops and the troops from the north are mostly conscripts. The plan was to roll them in, in large numbers, to take Kyiv. But these forces were second-tier. In the south, the Russians positioned the naval infantry, the marines out of Novorossiysk, to take the road that runs along the Sea of Azov and connects into Crimea. Those forces would then work as ground troops in cities like Mariupol and in the surrounding area. Russian forces are working toward Odessa, which is understood to be a "Russian city" culturally and is very important to Putin to take.

Putin had bad troops in the north who failed to maintain their vehicles. Stupidity was the causal variable that really caused that much-discussed huge convoy to bog down. The key error there was not maintaining the vehicles. The other error was that the Russians do not have a good NCO core, meaning the non-commissioned officers. Russian troops were also not told what they were going to Ukraine to do. That is a tactical error that has strategic-level importance.

And then, of course, where has the Russian air force been? The Russians did not expect the Ukrainians to be as capable as they have been in air defense. That's been a huge problem for the Russians, and will continue to be, because the United States has given Ukraine so many Stinger missiles. The U.S. and NATO are going to try to create a no-fly zone from the ground up. The Russian pilots were not given enough hours in their jets to properly train. They are not capable of effectively maneuvering around the Ukrainian air defenses, which they should be able to do.

Is this a story of the Russian military being incompetent or is the Ukrainian military that good? 

It is both. The Ukrainian military is one of the best in Europe now. It's small, and it doesn't have the equipment, but it is battle-hardened. You have two or three generations of fighters who have now passed through the front lines in Ukraine, going back to 2014. There are a lot of Ukrainians that have really good operational experience on the ground.

I think the Russians really did underestimate just how good the Ukrainian military was. Putin misunderstood the nature of the war. I also believe that Putin, like Western armchair generals, overplayed the impact of fancy tech and fancy weapon systems, and underplayed the importance of solid small-unit capabilities and the will to fight.

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And then I think you have a problem with the culture of the Russian military. It is true that Putin modernized the military, but the culture is still heavily Soviet. It is deeply hierarchical. It doesn't devolve command down to the tactical level because it doesn't trust tactical commanders. As a result, the Russian military under that system makes many mistakes on the ground, whereas the Ukrainian military has highly talented, mobile, independent units that can punch above their weight because they're led better than the Russians are, even if the Russians have better weapons.

But this is also why the war is going to get even bloodier. The Soviet tendency to work from the top down means that orders are given to just obliterate cities because that is the easiest thing to do.

There are many cheerleaders for NATO who are proclaiming that the Russian military is so incompetent that the U.S. military, along with NATO, would defeat them easily. What is the error of inference and assumption there, if there is one?

The error is that Putin would escalate. Putin sees Ukraine as Russian territory. If the U.S. and NATO were to go into Ukraine and impose a no-fly zone or something of that sort, Putin is going to see that as an attack on Russia. Putin would then have a rationale to escalate with things like battlefield nukes.

There are units such as the naval infantry that are probably Russia's best troops. They would put up a hard fight. But as good as those elite troops are, our entire Marine Corps is as good as they are. Not just our special forces in the Marine Corps, but your average jarhead is probably close to Russia's best in many ways. Yes, we would win if we were allowed to fight it at that level. But Putin would escalate to de-escalate.

Will the weapons and other support being sent to Ukraine by the U.S. and its NATO allies help to turn the tide of battle against the Russian forces? I am thinking specifically of Switchblade drones and other semi-autonomous weapons, as well as the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems that are being discussed.

When Zelenskyy says he needs a no-fly zone, we should listen. But in this case, I see the evidence as showing that the bulk of the damage is being caused by missiles and artillery. We've made a mistake not putting in Patriots or an "Iron Dome" system, and anti-artillery systems (counter-battery systems). Not doing that has given Putin leverage by being able to punish civilians and in effect take them hostage because he can target civilians with impunity. 

Is Vladimir Putin a rational actor? That does not mean that you and I or anyone else endorse his behavior — that is a common misunderstanding of the definition. How do experts explain what that concept actually means?

Here is how I explain the concept of a "rational actor." You go home for Thanksgiving, and you have one side of your family that watches Fox, and you have the other side of your family that watches MSNBC. Both sides are rational, but you don't recognize the validity of the logic of the other side. But within their system of logic, they're behaving appropriately. If A leads to B leads to C, and someone on the other side of the table says, "Well, then the next answer is D," that's rational. That's following the system of logic. If they go, "A leads to B, leads to C, leads to F," that doesn't make sense, that is illogical. But Putin's not crazy. Putin is following his own system of logic. He's as predictable as any of us are.

What is Putin's theory of Russia's destiny?

Putin believes that Russia has a special place in world history. Russia's role is to drive world history by standing between what he sees as European values and Asian values. In Putin's mind, if Russia is not the center of this geographic and cultural and spiritual space known as Eurasia, then the future of mankind is different, perhaps even catastrophic. Putin is trying to preserve the capacity of Russia to keep its space as a great power in human history. Putin has to maintain control of Ukraine because it is historically and spiritually critical to that project.

For Putin, if Ukraine goes democratic and adopts European values, which "Eurasianism" is against, then Ukraine becomes the point through which Russia loses its Eurasian values and becomes European. He is afraid of a Westernized and Europeanized Ukraine that has a stable democracy, however corrupt and whatnot, that believes in things like gay rights and a free press. If that happens, that destroys what Putin believes is the appropriate cultural space for Russia to lead.

There is a multitude of competing images and narratives about the events in Ukraine. What advice do you have for the public about how to better navigate what is really happening? How can the public be more critical in terms of understanding propaganda and how these images and stories are generated and in whose interests?

The public needs to understand that the information war is arguably more important than the war on the battlefield. To some extent, the kinetic war is driven by the need to create images and narratives that are circulated across the information realm. In turn, this drives the willingness of the U.S. Congress, for example to pass bills that will bring aid to Ukraine. That is a huge strategic win for Ukraine, in terms of the information war and world public opinion. Propaganda works best when there is truth in it, even if there are things that are not real as well.

I also believe that, insofar as you can have a justified or a moral war, then Ukraine's defense of their country is one such example. The public needs to get ready for the fact that there will be atrocities committed by Ukrainian troops. There is a huge amount of anger in these troops. Especially as this devolves into a war with civilians, I think you'll see those stories come out. You'll find less disciplined civilian defense units that will commit war crimes against Russians if they have the opportunity.

How would Putin define some sort of "victory with honor," in terms of ending this war in a ceasefire or other negotiated resolution?

Victory for Putin is controlling the political future of Ukraine. Putin does not need to make Ukraine a part of Russia in the legal sense. However, Putin has to control the political future of Ukraine. I do not believe there is an ending to this war short of that which will satisfy Putin. That is why I'm afraid of escalation.

Again, ultimately this ends in the streets of Moscow with the destruction of the Putinist regime. For Russia, this means the culmination of its post-Soviet stage of development because it has replicated the same sort of personality cult as the czars and Stalin. Now it is in the form of Putin. That must end.

That's where we end up ultimately. It may be a long time after the shooting stops in the war. I do not see any other route for the Russian people but to decide that their country has to step down from being a world power and instead be a European power, with all the rights and theories of European governance in place. Russia must cede its position as a world player to countries like the U.S. and China.

The situation in Ukraine is dynamic. With all of the talk of negotiation, Putin's army supposedly stalled and daily images of atrocities, how do you read the big picture?

The Russian military has reached "culmination." That term means the time when the attacking force can no longer continue its advance. Russia has been hit unexpectedly hard. It's taken significant losses, including in senior officers, critical equipment and supplies. The front is basically static at this point. 

The implication is that Putin will have to: 1) negotiate, 2) resupply and restart the same basic plan or 3) adopt a new plan that gets around the reasons he can't advance. Putin is not actually ready to negotiate. He will escalate the war with NATO and not Ukraine. The escalation is aimed at pressuring the West to be his weapon and to put pressure on Zelenskyy to capitulate, because he knows the West won't intervene to allow Ukraine to win on the ground.

Zelenskyy is now saying that he'd negotiate right away. Putin changed his plan and decided to use missiles and artillery — which the West could have helped to blunt — to take whole cities and populations hostage. Now Zelenskyy is being forced to choose between the population he's responsible for that is being held hostage, such as in Mariupol, and the things that population is fighting and dying for, which are independence, territorial integrity and European values and identity.

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Putin's center of gravity is the fact that he can hold those cities hostage. Without that, he doesn't have leverage. But at this moment in the war, Putin has that leverage. In this moment, Putin is in fact not deterrable by anything Ukraine can do, because they don't have the tools to stop his hostage-taking.

The only other choice for Zelenskyy is to continue the fight until the conditions shift and he has leverage to counter Putin's leverage, but at a great cost in the lives of his people. The only other option is for NATO to intervene by forcibly setting up the necessary weapons to stop the missiles and artillery, which would be a significant escalation. 

How would you assess Zelenskyy's performance?  

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has effectively become the leader of the free world. He has articulated the values of the West better than any of his peers and proven himself the most capable military leader on the planet today. He has led his people to a stalemate against the second-best military on the planet. Even if he can't "win," he's shown Western militaries how to use information, diplomacy and force of arms to fight the most modern war yet. He will be studied in war colleges for decades to come. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Interview Nato Nuclear Weapons Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelenskyy War