Western weapons striking Russia: How will Putin react?

Image credits: Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Picture courtesy of Alexey Nikolsky.

Several Western countries gave Ukraine the green light to use their weapons to hit targets inside Russia. Despite harsh rhetoric and nuclear threats, a fair question would be if the Kremlin is willing to respond to potential Ukrainian attacks on Russian military infrastructure seriously.

By Nikola Mikovic
Almost two and a half years after Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war is rapidly spilling over back to the territory of the Russian Federation. Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian regions of Belgorod and Bryansk have already become a norm. For the people living in towns and villages near the Ukrainian border, artillery shelling has become a daily routine.

According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Kyiv’s actions represent self-defence. In his view, the right to self-defence includes the right to strike legitimate military targets outside Ukraine, which the Ukrainian military has been doing since the beginning of the war.

The Kremlin never paid too much attention to the Russian victims in Belgorod, Shebekino, and Grayvoron. Not to mention the damage the Ukrainian strikes caused to Crimea or other Ukrainian regions Moscow annexed in 2022.

But all of a sudden, Moscow reportedly started to worry about future Ukrainian actions. Now that Kyiv and certain Western countries threaten to use Western-made weapons to attack targets on Russian territory, the Kremlin increased its fearmongering rhetoric, threatening to respond “severely.”

It is too late. Very few policymakers in the West still take such threats seriously.

Over the past two and a half years, Russia has been turning a blind eye to Ukrainian strikes on Belgorod, Crimea, and the Engels air base in the Saratov Oblast, among other targets. Moscow’s responses were always minimal. Not a single bridge on the Dnieper River in Ukraine has been destroyed, and not a single missile has been fired on the so-called decision-making centres (in reality, empty administrative buildings) in Kyiv. Maybe it's because Ukraine allegedly used its own rather than Western weapons.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, Ukraine can freely strike Russian territory as long as it does not use Western-made weapons. As a result, the lives of people living in Russian regions close to Ukraine have turned into a nightmare.

The Kremlin demonstrated a severe weakness. Most Western leaders no longer seem to fall for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bluffs. That is why Ukraine feels encouraged to begin launching massive strikes using Western weapons on military targets in Russia. Sooner or later, Kyiv is expected to get F-16 jets from its Western partners. They will almost certainly be used to strike Russian territory. But how will Moscow react?

The Kremlin has three options, all of which seem very bad. It can turn a blind eye to Kyiv’s actions, as it did when Ukraine recently attacked Russian strategic early warning radar sites, which are part of Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile early warning system. Moscow's passivity would yet again show that it does not have any red lines, and Ukraine will undoubtedly increase strikes on Russian territory.

Hypothetically, the Kremlin can respond by attacking NATO countries, as Russian leaders repeatedly announced. However, that would lead to a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO, which Moscow aims to avoid at almost any cost.

Finally, the third option would be a Putin-style half-measure – increased Russian missile strikes on Ukraine. It is something that the West and Kyiv can tolerate. The Kremlin reportedly also considers using tactical nuclear weapons, aiming not to create significant damage in Ukraine but to scare Kyiv and force it to stop striking Russian territory.

The problem for Moscow is that the United States, according to Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, has told the Russians that “if you explode a nuke, even if it doesn’t kill anybody, we will hit all your targets in Ukraine with conventional weapons, we’ll destroy all of them.”

Even if the US does not destroy Russian targets in the Eastern European country, the very fact that Washington directly attacked Russian forces would represent a severe challenge to Putin. If he does not respond to American attacks, he will look weak. And the weak get beaten, as he said back in 2004. If he reacts seriously, the world could be on the verge of a nuclear conflict.

To prevent such an outcome, Putin must reach an Iran-style behind-the-scenes deal with his American partners. In other words, he would have to get tacit approval from Washington to strike empty US bases in some European countries, making sure that no American soldier gets killed. He could then portray such an action as a “severe Russian response”, which is precisely what the Iranian leaders did after they launched missile strikes on empty American military barracks in Iraq.

One thing is for sure. Allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons against targets in Russia is not guaranteed to shift the overall strategic balance on the ground in the Eastern European country. But if Western-made missiles and bombs start to fall on Russian territory, it will undoubtedly represent yet another humiliation for the Kremlin.  

 

Nikola Mikovic

In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way." (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
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