However, Putin—whose military has performed far more poorly in Ukraine than anyone anticipated and has faced heavy, embarrassing setbacks—also hardly seems likely to accept defeat or a stalemate in Ukraine. “We’re in a really dangerous place; having pushed all the chips into the pot and not succeeded so far, he’s ratcheting up the brutality and targeting of civilians and threatening nuclear consequences if all of us continue to aid Ukraine,” Schake says. “It’s a really dangerous moment … I can think of a bunch of ways this goes bad.”
Dmitri Alperovich, a cybersecurity veteran, cofounder of Crowdstrike, and founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, says the breadth and speed of economic sanctions against Russia surely surprised Putin. “Those will have a devastating impact on Russia and its economy,” he says. “I do fear we’re putting him in a position where he has nothing to lose.”
It seems likely that Russia’s actions, both in Ukraine and potentially in cyber realms abroad, will only grow in violence and intensity. “Putin escalating and escalating to prevent loss is the most likely scenario,” Schake says. “I have a hard time seeing what the face-saving option is for Russia.”
Outcomes that a week ago, preinvasion, might have seemed a possible end to the Russia-initiated crisis—like a tacit agreement that Ukraine would not ascend to EU or NATO membership or an advancement of the Minsk Agreements that might recognize Russia’s occupation of Crimea or eastern Ukraine—seem off the table, given the punishing warfare and Western unity already underway.
Instead, Alperovich says Russia may well move to escalate its more wide-ranging economic war against the West, weaponizing standard Russian commodity exports like fertilizer, aluminum, nickel, and titanium to punish Western trading partners, further foul global supply chains, and heat up already high inflation. Whereas Russia’s own reliance on oil and gas exports makes energy an unlikely lever except as a last resort, Alperovich notes, for instance, that Ukraine is the world’s leading exporter of the neon gas used to manufacture semiconductors. Any Russian efforts to disrupt those exports would further snarl chip production that’s already seen pandemic shortages freeze industries like car manufacturing. “Those are areas where they can inflict economic costs without suffering massively themselves,” Alperovich says.
Whereas Russia has not thus far appeared to use much of its heralded cyber capabilities as part of its Ukraine invasion, the West’s sustained campaign against Russia will almost certainly see cyber consequences in the days and weeks ahead. “It’s always been my contention that if we cut them off from SWIFT, we’re going to be in for some retaliation against our financial sector. I think that’s almost a certainty,” Clapper says.
Alperovich also says that he expects to see cyber actions by Russia aimed at breaking Europe and NATO’s unity, but that such effects might well prove limited. “It’s really hard to have lasting damage with cyber,” he says. “They might be able to turn things off for a few hours or days, but we have plenty of capacity to get things back online. But it can cause an escalation that requires us to respond.”