In his recent populist speech on the anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin looked and sounded like an Orthodox patriarch delivering a sermon. He tried to convince us that he launched his war for the sake of Christianity and its values. The West, he claimed, is trying to destroy Orthodox values and virtues: “The destruction of families, of cultural and national identities and the perversion that is child abuse all the way up to paedophilia, are advertised as the norm… and priests are forced to bless same-sex marriages.” If the crazy war was launched to defend honour and virtue, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the first war in modern history to be waged for this honourable goal.
Let’s not be fooled, though. Tyrants always resort to populist rhetoric and use religion to justify their crimes, and to terrorise and control their people. They anoint the ruler with pseudo-divine status so that no one dares criticise them or hold them accountable; to do so would be to deny “divine” will. This is an old Roman trick which is still used today by neo-fascist regimes, especially in the miserable Arab world with its dictatorships.
Putin the Patriarch neglected what Putin the Tsar said at the start of his invasion of Ukraine when he wanted to win support by appealing to the emotions. He did so by prompting ethnic and nationalist feelings in Russian hearts, and presenting their ancient history and civilisation. According to Putin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, caused the division of the country through the federal structure that he established on the ruins of the Russian Empire. He said that he also caused the loss of Russian land that became separate states over time, and that he made a mistake when he granted the Ukrainians independence within the Soviet Union and ceded Russian land inhabited by Russians to Ukraine. He added that those who seized power in Kyiv were neo-Nazis, whose grandfathers and fathers were fighting with Hitler and killing Russians.
In fact, by invading Ukraine, Putin fell into an American trap. Since then he has sought to create a new multipolar world by attracting China and India to his side, but they blamed him for this absurd war, so he then said he was fighting Satan.
The Russian bear’s “special military operation” — Putin’s euphemism for his invasion of Ukraine — would only take a few hours, he claimed, before he could return Ukraine to the fold of the Russian Empire as it was during the time of the tsars. When this didn’t happen, he threatened to use nuclear weapons, letting Washington know that a Russian defeat would mean nuclear war.
Putin clearly did not believe that Ukraine would be able to withstand his armed forces for a whole year. The intelligence reports submitted to him in advance apparently confirmed that Kyiv would fall within a few days, just as the Crimean Peninsula fell before it; and that the Ukrainian army would be crushed. He thought that the “neo-Nazis” would be defeated — that’s what the political leadership in Moscow and the Russian media call the Ukrainian people — and that the US and the West would do nothing more than condemn his actions and impose some sanctions that he would be able to bypass like he did after his occupation of Crimea. However, he has been surprised by the strength of the Ukrainian army and the courage and ferocity of its soldiers, who have outfought the Russian army and retaken many areas occupied by Russia. The Russian leader has also been surprised by the massive amount of military aid that the US and the West have poured into Ukraine and the unprecedented sanctions that have crippled Russia’s economy.A few days before Putin’s anniversary speech, US President Joe Biden visited Ukraine to demonstrate his support for the country and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Speaking in Kyiv, Biden said that Putin was “plain wrong” in thinking that “Ukraine was weak and the West was divided.” He also stressed US support. “One year later, Kyiv stands and Ukraine stands,” the US leader told the people of Ukraine. “Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”
After leaving Ukraine, Biden met with the leaders of the Bucharest Group of nine former Soviet Republics. He reassured them that their relationship with the US is sacred and stressed that his administration’s commitment to defending every inch of NATO-members’ territory is what provoked Putin and made him lose his balance. This caused the Russian leader to suspend Moscow’s participation in the New START treaty, in which both Russia and the US are committed to controlling their respective nuclear arsenals. In a defiant show of force he ordered the Defence Ministry and the Russian nuclear agency, Rosatom, to prepare for nuclear tests. He wanted to intimidate the West by adding with some arrogance that it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield.
The US and the West know that putting pressure on Putin and backing him into a corner may actually make him resort to nuclear weapons as the only option to avoid the shame and humiliation of defeat before the world and his people in particular. That is why former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned against any insistence on defeating Putin, and instead called for the Russia-Ukraine issue to be resolved through diplomatic means to avoid a global nuclear war.
“We have heard implicit threats to use nuclear weapons,” added UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “The so-called tactical use of nuclear weapons is utterly unacceptable. It is high time to step back from the brink.”
Is the world on the brink of nuclear war? Is there another way out?
The only way, I believe, is for the Russian people to depose Putin the tyrant. He has oppressed them, taken their freedom, and dragged them into a war from which they gain nothing but poverty and ruin. That’s a big ask of ordinary people, but it could be what’s needed to avoid nuclear war.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.