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Ukraine made recent battlefield gains. How will Putin retaliate?


Ukraine's army has recently recaptured a lot of territory from Russia. They also have analysts asking a question, not for the first time, what happens if Russian President Vladimir Putin feels cornered? NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A former deputy secretary general of NATO, Rose Gottemoeller, has been talking to fellow nuclear experts lately about the war in Ukraine.

ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: Now the feeling is that Putin, when he's cornered, may react by resort. And particularly, the concern is about nuclear weapons.

KELEMEN: Gottemoeller, who lectures at Stanford University, points to a couple of possible scenarios involving smaller tactical nuclear weapons.

GOTTEMOELLER: For example, detonating a single weapon over the Black Sea with the goal of terrorizing the Ukrainians and the rest of the world and trying to get the Ukrainians to capitulate. Another option might be to use a nuclear weapon against a military facility inside Ukraine.

KELEMEN: Rose Gottemoeller isn't suggesting this is likely. She says there's a long-standing taboo against the first use of such weapons. And the Russians like to point out that the U.S. is the only country that has used nuclear weapons - in Japan in World War II. But she says the Biden administration has to consider the risks. Mary Glantz, a former State Department official, doubts Putin would resort to such measures.

MARY GLANTZ: I don't think he's that desperate. I don't think his regime is in danger. And that's what he cares most about - is himself and his regime. So I think he's a rational actor. He's not going to go for nuclear weapons or something that would really escalate this conflict.

KELEMEN: Russia is escalating in other ways. Russian forces have been hitting critical civilian infrastructure this week, including a dam in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's hometown. And Glantz, who's with the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Russia could inflict more pain on the Ukrainian people. As for Russia's battlefield losses, she believes Putin can spin that at home.

GLANTZ: I think he has a lot of room for maneuver. Putin has control over the information space in Russia. The majority of Russians don't really seem to care. We saw one poll that said the majority of them think that he should launch a new offensive. And the same poll said that the majority also think that it would be OK if he just gave up and left Ukraine.

KELEMEN: So analysts are wondering what Putin wants now. Stanford's Gottemoeller says the Kremlin leader has already failed in his bid to recreate, as she puts it, a Slavic heartland of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

GOTTEMOELLER: If Putin is understanding the extent of this failure, he must be in a pretty bad mood. But because of the information bubble he's in, I'm not sure he does recognize the extent of this failure.

KELEMEN: Even Russia's goal of controlling and annexing the Donbas and southern Ukraine seem increasingly in doubt. With the help of Western weapons and training, the Ukrainians are pushing the Russians back. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has said his forces won't stop until they've also reclaimed Crimea, which the Russians captured back in 2014. Neither side seems ready to negotiate. And the U.S. strategy is to keep arming Ukraine. State Department spokesperson Ned Price puts it this way.

NED PRICE: We want our Ukrainian partners to be in the most advantageous position possible if and when a negotiating table emerges.

KELEMEN: He says Ukraine's hand is stronger with, quote, "every inch of territory that is defended or retaken." What's less clear is how Putin will respond. He says so far, Russia has been looking for lifelines, meeting with China's president for diplomatic support and turning to Iran and North Korea for military supplies. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.