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Ukraine’s battlefield wins delight the West but could make the war more dangerous

National Police of Ukraine

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Editor's note: This story was adapted from the September 13 edition of CNN's Meanwhile in America, the email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

(CNN) - Ukraine's stunning recapture of vast areas of Russian-held territory is renewing the focus on the most chilling unknown of a war already marked by extreme cruelty -- the depths to which a cornered Vladimir Putin might descend.

Huge gains made by Ukrainian forces in recent days are a tribute to the bravery of troops fighting for a nation's survival, an ingenious military strategy and yet more evidence of failures among Russia's once vaunted armed forces.

They also represent a victory for Western policy of steadfast support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's government. Kyiv's progress validates the US strategy of sending billions of dollars of arms and ammunition to Ukraine's forces in what would previously have been an unheard of modern proxy war in Europe.

But they also raise the question of how Putin, facing embarrassments on the battlefield and signs of rare political pressure at home, might react, recalling fears earlier in the war that he could reach for chemical weapons or even a tactical nuclear device as a last resort.

"The Russian regime is in trouble, I believe, and they have got to turn it," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack on CNN on Monday evening. "They are being backed into a corner domestically and not internationally, which makes this all very dangerous," he said.

Footage of scenes of liberation in Ukraine were regarded with delight in Washington, and as yet another important twist in a war that has often proved unpredictable.

"I think it is a pivotal moment. It really has changed what otherwise was a war of attrition, and clearly given Ukraine an advantage here that gives them momentum at a critical time," ex-CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper" on Monday.

Ukraine's advance has quickly recaptured 6,000 square kilometers (around 2,300 square miles) in the east and south of the country, according to the Kyiv government. Its troops have been pushing forward in the northeastern region of Kharkiv and have been fighting a smaller offensive in the south.

In a potentially important political development, Russia's losses have broken through in Moscow despite the crushing of independent media. Some TV commentators and bloggers have criticized the conduct of the war and the Kremlin admitted that Putin was aware of developments, though insisted the "special operation" in Ukraine would succeed. In a show of considerable courage, given Putin's repressive record, deputies in 18 Russian districts called for his resignation, though it would be unwise to over interpret this as a sign of a broad revolt.

Still, the White House is highlighting signs of dissent to increase the sense of political pressure on Putin.

"It is very interesting to see, isn't it now, that he's facing some public rebukes not just from opposition figures, but from actual elected officials inside Russia. That's not insignificant, and we'll see where this goes," John Kirby, the National Security Council's coordinator for strategic communications, told ABC News on Tuesday.

"We're already starting to see signs that they're going to probably start to crack down on some of these dissident elected officials," he said. "We'll watch this carefully."

Surprising developments in Ukraine will offer new openings to Western governments keen to further increase the pressure on Putin, but they may also require another recalibration of US military aid and other assistance and a reconsideration of the possibilities for Ukraine as it seeks to expel Moscow's troops from all of its territory. The US says it remains committed to giving Ukraine what it needs to carry on the fight against Russia, although that could change after November's midterm elections if Republicans less willing to support a foreign war win control of Congress.

One key issue for the US is whether American military aid that first included anti-tank weapons and small arms, then included items like drones and howitzers, may now need to be adjusted again to help Zelensky's armed forces consolidate control over newly captured land and to repel any Russian counter-attacks.

"Now the war enters a new stage where the ability to move forces under fire and exploit weaknesses in Russian lines are of utmost importance," said Rafael Loss, coordinator for Pan-European Data Projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Western leaders could help Ukraine build on successes and liberate more land with battle tanks and armored vehicles, Loss said.

Putin's choice

In addition to tactical considerations, Ukraine's romp through previously held Russian territory poses the question of how Putin, who has invested enormous credibility into a war he has framed as a broader conflict against the West, might react to the reversals.

Military analysts have said that the breakthroughs by Ukrainian troops over the weekend are the most significant in the war since Russia abandoned its drive to capture the capital Kyiv in the early weeks after the invasion.

Basking in the latest Ukrainian victories, Zelensky almost taunted Putin in a Telegram post addressed to Russia Sunday, asking, "Do you still think that we are 'one nation?' Do you still think that you can scare us, break us, make us make concessions?"

But tempering the euphoria in the West is not just the reality that war can be unpredictable and battlefield gains can be reversed. It's the realization that if Russia is facing heavy loses that are politically unpalatable to the ruthless Russian leader, Ukrainian victories may simply usher the war into a dangerous new phase.

The invasion has shown Putin's indifference to human carnage and a willingness previously shown in conflicts in Chechnya and Syria to rain terror on civilians and to raze cities. Tens of thousands of Russian forces have been killed, according to Western intelligence agencies, yet Putin has gone on the record as saying that his country has lost nothing from the invasion.

So it's quite possible that Putin will take defeats as a spur to launch withering assaults on liberated districts from the air or with artillery and rocket shells. Another area of possible leverage is the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe, which has led international nuclear officials to warn that Moscow is "playing with fire" and risks disaster.

Given the importance of the conflict to Putin, western strategists also do not rule out the possibility that Russian forces will dig deep into defensive lines for a prolonged war of attrition that could give them time to resupply and regroup.

There have long been fears in the West of how Putin would react if it looks like he is losing the war in Ukraine, with concern raised over whether he might escalate to the use of chemical weapons. And the possibility that Russia could even deploy a limited-yield battlefield nuclear weapon in the event its troops are on the run has not been ruled out by Western strategists, even if the US has said there is no sign of Moscow moving its nuclear arsenal so far. Ukraine's top military officer, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, warned of the direct threat of tactical nuclear weapons use by Moscow, Reuters reported last week.

Any deployment of weapons of mass destruction would again risk the kind of escalation between Russia -- the world's biggest nuclear power -- and Washington that President Joe Biden has sought to avoid at all costs. A desire to avert such a scenario led him to deter NATO allies in Eastern Europe from sending military jets to Ukraine in the belief that Putin could see it as an unacceptable direct intervention in the war by the alliance. Similar questions might come into play if the US considers sending battle tanks or other such weaponry to Ukraine in a new phase of the war.

Struggling to identify Putin's red lines

The difficulty for the West has always been trying to calculate where Putin's red lines lie. So far, they've not been crossed. But no one knows if that will change -- and Putin has successfully sowed mystique around himself that makes it impossible to accurately judge how extreme he might get.

"Whether he has lines he would not cross -- it's hard to know that," said Bradley Woodworth, a Russia expert and an associate professor of history at the University of New Haven. "It makes it devilishly difficult, I am sure, to have a coherent policy when things are so fluid."

"It's scary as hell. How would we know what would be his line for using a tactical nuclear weapons?"

Even short of such a step, there will be increasing scrutiny in the coming days in the US and Western capitals over Putin's next move, especially if the criticism in Moscow grows.

One possibility is that Putin could intensify his own efforts to submit Western publics, and the politicians who lead them, to fierce pressure in the winter months by wielding as a weapon Russia's vital role as an energy supplier to Europe.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand, Katie Bo Lillis and Phil Mattingly reported Monday that the White House was already worried that Russia's cut-off of oil and gas supplies could cause fissures in the Western alliance.

The idea that Putin might respond in a less inflammatory manner -- by seeking a face-saving way out of the war -- is undercut both by Ukrainian determination to drive Russians out of all of their territory after an unprovoked invasion as well as the utter lack of any trust between Moscow and Kyiv, as exemplified by Zelensky's taunts. This, along with the massive political capital Putin has invested in the war, explain the failure so far of building diplomatic exits for the Russian leader.

Still, Panetta argued that with continued Ukrainian gains and long-term Western support to enable more progress on the battlefield, Putin could end up in a vulnerable position facing a difficult choice.

"That is the strategy that ultimately will force Putin to decide — whether or not he is going to continue to struggle with what is a war he can't win or whether he is going to try to negotiate some kind of off-ramp," he said.

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