Only NATO Can Save Putin

The odds of a palace coup against Putin are already low; the odds of such a move while Russia is at war with NATO are even lower.

An illustration of Vladimir Putin and the NATO symbol
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Tom Nichols is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Peacefield.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is in trouble. Despite his limited gains on the ground in Ukraine, he is facing strategic defeat in a war that no one (including me) would have expected him to lose. The vaunted Russian army has turned out to be a hollow force whose major skill sets seem to be bullying its own conscripts and killing foreign civilians. The Russian air force has underperformed even the lowest expectations; perhaps Russian pilots should have spent more time getting training and logging flying hours instead of doing fancy maneuvers at foreign air shows. At home, Putin distrusts his own security services and is apparently purging some of his top spies. The Russian people are going into the streets, prompting the regime to arrest thousands. The Russian economy is in a deep freeze and is likely to stay there for years.

Only one military force in the world can save Putin from utter humiliation now: NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO intervention in Russia’s war on Ukraine could halt that country’s barbarous attacks. But it would mean war between Putin’s regime and the West, and this war would be such a gift to Putin that we should expect that he will soon do everything he can to provoke it.

The U.S. and Europe should resist such provocations.

First and foremost, NATO intervention would help Putin by allowing him to rally his nation and impose even harsher measures to suffocate dissent. Millions of Russians clearly want nothing to do with this fratricidal war, which is one reason Putin has been desperate to keep them from hearing anything about it other than weird Soviet-era cant about neo-Nazis and weapons of mass destruction. If NATO were to become involved, however, Putin’s regime would gladly play footage of Russian men being blasted to pieces by U.S., British, and other allied jets. (Americans who think that a “no-fly zone” would not require attacking land targets, perhaps even in Russia, are deluding themselves.) And even if the Germans were not participants, Russia would almost certainly fabricate videos of German jets attacking Russian military units to play on the obvious and reflexive nationalistic anger that many Russians will feel at such images.

Putin knows that the term NATO can still produce a visceral response in Russia. NATO is a traditional enemy—and one many Russians have blamed for their troubles in the past. NATO jets streaking over Ukrainian skies will silence at least some of the protests, and give Putin’s supporters a bigger cudgel when they widen the fascist beatdown of the last Russians who refuse to accept the war.

Inside the Kremlin, meanwhile, Putin could likewise use NATO’s intervention to move against any possible dissent or hesitation. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the U.S. Congress yesterday morning, Putin was in Moscow raging away on Russian television against those rich Russians residing abroad “who cannot live without foie gras” and who have now become “traitors and bastards” because they are “mentally” against Russia.

Many of those rich Russians living abroad are the childrenand mistresses—of Putin’s inner circle. The Kremlin boss was thus firing a warning shot over the heads of his own sycophants as well as the oligarchs whose pursuit of wealth he has enabled: I expect your loyalty, and I know where you and your families live. A war with NATO would make such threats seem patriotic rather than paranoid. The odds of a palace coup against Putin are already low; the odds of such a move while Russia is at war with NATO are even lower.

Putin could also use NATO’s participation in the war to override objections in the Kremlin or the Russian defense ministry regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Russian elites who might quail at the idea of deploying nuclear bombs against innocent Ukrainians will be harder pressed to explain their opposition to using such weapons against the NATO air bases from which jets are flying into combat, killing Russian soldiers and turning Russia’s mighty tanks into flaming wrecks.

Although some observers may believe that Putin would fold before he approaches the nuclear threshold, and others worry that even the smallest NATO action will inevitably spark World War III, such arguments at both extremes ignore the role of chance and risk. A nuclear crisis is not an orderly duel or a game with rules, but rather a maelstrom of poor information, conflicting signals, and highly charged emotions. To make matters worse, Putin has always been a poor strategist, a risk-taker who foolishly sets in motion—as he has done in Ukraine—forces he cannot control.

In any case, even if Putin is too deluded to think about such risks, the rest of us must consider the dangers of ordering the largest military coalition in human history into battle against a disorganized and battered army led by incompetent officers and commanded by an isolated and delusional president. Putting so many military assets in play, with combat breaking out all over Europe, could spark a catastrophe that neither we nor Putin intended. The danger is not that the Russian war on Ukraine becomes a replay of 1939, in which a coalition must stop a mad dictator at all costs, but that a Russia-NATO war becomes a nuclear version of 1914, in which all the combatants would find themselves moving from a crisis none of them expected into a cataclysm none of them wanted.

So what can the U.S. do? We can keep providing the Ukrainians with the weapons they need to defend themselves. We can keep strangling the Russian economy so that Putin cannot fund his war machine. We can continue beefing up NATO forces and defenses. We can make better investments in U.S. and allied defenses. Perhaps we can even open NATO membership to other nations, including Finland and Sweden, now that Putin himself has made a case for an expanded alliance that is more ironclad and convincing than even NATO’s most ardent advocates could have made decades ago.

Putin is losing, and he knows it. Rather than finding a way out of his own mess, he is unwinding nearly 30 years of Russian diplomatic, economic, political, and even military development. Worse, his loss is at the hands of the Ukrainians, whose army he thought would collapse under the first barrage of Russian artillery, whose government he thought would flee in terror, and whose people he thought would greet him as a liberator.

The Russia that will emerge from this war will be weaker and poorer than the Russia that opened fire on Ukrainian innocents, on brother and sister Slavs, last month—but only if we keep our heads and do not allow the conflict to engulf all of Europe. This is why the United States and NATO must resist Russian provocations, which already include war crimes and atrocities, and which soon could become even more extreme with “false flag” operations that might bring chemical weapons into play.

The body count is going to grow. But a NATO intervention would solve almost all of Putin’s problems, and create dangers we cannot predict.