One of the fears has been that Russia might “go nuclear” if there was a danger of a military defeat in Ukraine. Unlikely though it is, this option remains on the table, including through Russia deliberately causing a nuclear disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which has been under Russian control since March and at the centre of fierce fighting for two months now.
But Russia has other options, too, and has exercised them already. Strikes against critical civilian infrastructure in Ukraine have always been part of Russian tactics, but over the weekend Russian missile strikes specifically targeted the Ukrainian electricity grid, leaving four regions without power.
While Putin has already played most of his energy cards, he can still cause prolonged pain to Ukraine and its Western backers, especially as the colder season approaches.
This may cause a renewal of debates in particular in Europe about the need for a deal with Russia. Even if this were the case, the currently stated Ukrainian and Russian positions are too far apart for meaningful negotiations to get underway any time soon.
Moreover, Russian suggestions that the West is not upholding its end of a UN-brokered deal on grain and fertiliser exports points to a potential reinstatement of Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. This would exacerbate an already dramatic global food crisis and further drive up inflation across many countries.
It is also not completely out of the question that Russia will use other crises, such as the recent violent escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan to distract from its own difficulties in Ukraine. Instability in the South Caucasus, moreover, would potentially frustrate European efforts to source more natural gas from Azerbaijan and overcome its dependence on Russia.