A cornered Putin is more dangerous than ever
By Roger Cohen
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, in a speech this week that was a reminder of how easily the war in Ukraine could spread, doubled down on his nuclear threat, accused the West of seeking to “destroy” his country, and suggested that Ukrainians are mere pawns of the “military machine of the collective West.”
Hours later, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, President Joe Biden denounced Putin’s “overt nuclear threats” against Europe, describing them as “reckless.” The West, he said, would be “clear, firm and unwavering” in its resolve as it confronts Putin’s “brutal, needless war” in Ukraine.
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple,” Biden said. He continued: “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should make your blood run cold.”
Seven months into the war, its resolution appeared more distant than ever and its reverberations more dangerous. Perhaps not since the Cuban missile crisis six decades ago have U.S. and Russian leaders confronted each other so explicitly and sharply on the danger of nuclear war.
In a videotaped address to the nation, Putin effectively conceded that the war he started Feb. 24 has not gone as he wished. By calling up roughly 300,000 reservists to fight on what he called a 620-mile front, without mentioning the original pretense of demilitarizing and “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, he acknowledged something he had consistently denied: the reality and growing resistance of a unified Ukrainian nation.
But Putin cornered is Putin at his most dangerous. That was one of the core lessons of his hardscrabble youth that he took from the furious reaction of a rat he cornered on a stairwell in what was then Leningrad.
His speech at once inverted a war of aggression against a neighbor into one of defense of the “motherland,” a theme that resonates with Russians steeped in the Kremlin’s version of their country’s history, and warned the West in unmistakable terms — “this is not a bluff” — that the attempt to weaken or defeat Russia could provoke nuclear cataclysm.
“Russia won its defensive wars against Napoleon and Hitler, and the most important thing Putin did here from a psychological perspective was to claim this, too, is a defensive war,” said Michel Eltchaninoff, the French author of “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin.” “It was an aggressive war. Now it’s the defense of the Russian world against the Western attempt at dismemberment.”
That “Russkiy Mir,” or imagined world imbued with some inalienable Russian essence, grew in size as Putin suggested in the speech that the country’s nuclear arsenal could be used to defend eastern and southern areas of Ukraine captured since the war began that Moscow may soon claim as its own.
Putin said Russia would support imminent referendums in four regions of Ukraine on whether to join Russia. This method, described this week by President Emmanuel Macron of France as “simulacra” of referendums, was used in Crimea in 2014 to justify Russian annexation.
It seems likely that the referendums, in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south — which the United States and Western allies have denounced as “sham” votes — would also lead to Russian annexation. At that point, the Ukrainian counteroffensives underway in the east and south to recapture territory seized by Russia, could, in Moscow’s view, be called an attack on Russian soil, justifying any retaliation, even nuclear riposte.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will of course use all means at our disposal to defend Russia and our people,” Putin said.
His speech, which may of course be a bluff despite his denial, nevertheless placed before the West a dilemma that has been inherent in its policy from the start of the war: How far can intense military and logistical support of Ukraine — effectively everything short of NATO troops on the ground — go without setting off nuclear confrontation?
As Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has said, the United States and its Western allies have been trying to use “all means possible” to help Ukraine “without creating an uncontrollable escalation.” But the risk of that escalation, in effect the start of World War III, just grew, because what constitutes a strike “inside Russia” may now be defined differently by Putin.
How the West will react to this new risk threshold is unclear, although leaders were unanimous in denouncing Putin’s threats.
“I believe the nuclear threat is a bluff but it gives Putin a means to terrify the West, and accentuate divisions about providing arms because some may now view that as too dangerous,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to Russia.
Full of anger and venom, portraying Ukraine as the headquarters of neo-Nazis and the West as a giant engine of “Russophobia,” Putin appeared as deluded about the neighbor he attacked as he was in his Feb. 24 speech that announced the war.
He has downsized Russia’s military ambitions in Ukraine — upended by the Russian defeat in Kyiv and recent battlefield setbacks in the northeast — without downsizing his obsessions over Russian humiliation at the breakup of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
On Wednesday, as in February, he accused Ukrainian authorities, falsely, of genocide against ethnic Russians. He boasted of nuclear weapons that are “more advanced” than in the West. He made wild allegations about the threat to Russia, alluding, for example, to “statements by some high-ranking representatives of leading NATO states about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction — nuclear weapons — against Russia.”
There is no evidence of this.
Putin “claimed he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia and no one other than Russia sought conflict,” Biden said.
The Russian attempt to rebuild the imperium lost at the dissolution of the Soviet Union finds itself at a treacherous crossroads. After multiple military setbacks, Putin spoke from relative weakness.
“The situation is very dangerous because Putin is in a trap,” Bermann said.