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Putin's nuclear threat

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech in Moscow, Russia on September 21, 2022 [Kremlin Press Office - Anadolu Agency]
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech in Moscow, Russia on September 21, 2022 [Kremlin Press Office - Anadolu Agency]

The war in Ukraine is in its seventh month, and Russia's new tsar has been unable to achieve the goals announced at the beginning of his "limited military operation", as if it was a leisurely outing to return Ukraine to Moscow's fold. Vladimir Putin views the state as an integral part of Russia conceded by the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, on the ruins of the Russian Empire.

Putin believes that Lenin made a mistake when he granted Ukrainians independence within the Soviet Union and gave up Russian land inhabited by Russian speakers. However, he has found himself in a quagmire of his own making. Whenever he removes himself from it and is deceived by some of his victories and his occupation of Ukrainian cities, he is blown backwards. When he tried to attack the Ukrainian capital Kyiv he faced fierce resistance and withdrew. Likewise in the Kharkiv province recently, where the Ukrainian army recovered land occupied by the Russians since April.

The Ukrainian army also retook the strategic city of Izyum, which was a serious blow to Putin. Despite its relatively small size — its population is just over 56,000 — its location on the border between the pro-Russian Kharkiv and Donetsk regions makes it of great importance. It was where the Russian army launched attacks, given that Izyum is the gateway to Donbas in eastern Ukraine and from there to the Black Sea. The Russian forces used it to cut off Ukrainian army supplies coming through Kharkiv to Luhansk, and it paved the way for the meeting of the Russians in the Kharkov province with the Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region.

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Now the situation has reversed, with the Ukrainian forces regaining control of Kupiansk on Saturday, which threatens to completely disrupt the Russian supply line and leave thousands of Russian soldiers on the front line in Donbas without supplies. The Russian forces are almost completely isolated.

The fall of Izyum is Russia's worst military setback, as described by the New York Times; it has forced a change of strategy from attacking Kyiv to focusing on eastern Ukraine.

Military operations are by their nature uncertain and subject to counter-attacks. Only when the terms of a ceasefire are agreed will we know who has won, and who will dictate the conditions of surrender. There have been reports that Putin has been seeking to negotiate secretly with the Ukrainians through a mediator, perhaps Turkiye's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been trying to get Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Russian counterpart Putin to meet since the beginning of the war. Zelenskyy apparently welcomed this move, while the latter rejected Erdogan. Now Zelenskyy is saying no, and vowing to defeat the Russians and regain the Crimean Peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014.

There is no doubt that Putin is in a predicament. He started the war with a sense of arrogance and superiority, and now does not know how to end it. Those who watched his televised speech last week know the magnitude of the crisis. His threat to use nuclear weapons is only a way to escape forward and an expression of his despair at failing to beat the Ukrainian forces with conventional weapons. The partial mobilisation of Russian reserves is clear evidence of Moscow's failure on the battlefield.

Like other regimes which turn defeats into illusory victories that no one else can see, Russian officials and media cheered Putin's speech and said that the call-up of reserves was a source of strength and victory. However, he was exposed by the images of young Russians protesting and heading for the border rather than being drafted to join the defeated Russian army on the front line. Airlines sold out of tickets, despite astronomical prices.

Putin's predicament is a political, military and economic decline, and is also illustrated by him conducting a show referendum in the four regions he has occupied in Ukraine. Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia represent about 15 per cent of the total area of Ukraine, and he intends to annex them. Such a referendum is a flagrant violation of international law and the UN Charter, but when he did the same in Crimea he did not face any decisive response from the West. This has clearly encouraged him to do the same thing again, with indifference about the economic sanctions which he has managed to bypass in one way or another.

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In the event that these regions are annexed to Russia, any attempt by Ukrainian forces to restore them to Ukraine will be viewed by Putin as an attack on Russian land. "If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened," he said, "we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people." [Emphasis added]

This will give Moscow an excuse to escalate its faltering war in Ukraine, moving from being the aggressor to acting in "self-defence" of the areas it has occupied. It is from this perspective that we can understand the words of Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, that the successful Ukrainian counter-attacks were the reason for expediting the referendum.

Although US President Joe Biden has declared explicitly that it will never recognise the sham referendums that Russia is conducting in occupied Ukraine as the pretext to annex Ukrainian land by force, Washington has not made any decisive move to deter Russia, even though it could if it wanted to. Instead, it seems as if the US wants to prolong the war as long as possible for purely geopolitical reasons. It wants to strengthen its global domination and block the rise of any other power. It is fighting Russia by proxy in Ukraine, supplying the latter with traditional weapons and withholding more modern weapons that Zelenskyy wants. Putin has threatened America and the West if they send long-range missiles to Ukraine, which is an example of his unmatched arrogance; he is fighting a country and threating its allies if they help it to defend itself. At the moment, though, US support for Kyiv is limited to logistics and intelligence; there is no overt, direct involvement of US troops.

Russia has thus fallen into the American trap, as Ukraine was basically pushed into a needless war which could have been avoided. The fighting has destroyed the country, displaced its people and taken the lives of thousands of its soldiers. Zelenskyy was foolish not to realise that he has been a puppet in Washington's hands to achieve America's goals. Ukraine is burning so that the US can remain the only global superpower. As Machiavelli said over 500 years ago, the end justifies the means.

There is no doubt that the US wants to drain Russia in every way possible, to weaken its economic strength and military capabilities so that the Russian army loses its prestige and reputation. It also wants to expose the ineffectiveness of Russian weapons, so the demand for them is reduced and Moscow loses a lucrative market.

Russia's new tsar thought that this war would be a walk in the park, and that he could restore the glory days of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. That is why he has threatened to use nuclear weapons, perhaps forgetting that the West also possesses a huge and diverse nuclear arsenal but has not threatened him with its use. Is the nuclear threat a reaction to what looks like a defeat that he had not even considered might be possible, or will he turn out to be a new Nero who watches on while Moscow burns?

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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