Putin’s path: from commitment to stability to nuclear threat

As he turned 70 on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself on the verge of a storm of his own making: His military was suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Russians are fleeing his dispatch, and his top lieutenants are openly insulting military leaders.

With his maneuverability dwindling, Putin has repeatedly signaled that he could use nuclear weapons to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine – a threat hard to circumvent claims of stability that he repeated during his 22 years in power.

“It’s really been a tough time for him, but he can’t accuse anyone else,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. . “And he’s going straight to the big, big problems.”

By instigating the disastrous war in Ukraine, Europe’s largest military conflict since World War Two, Putin broke an unwritten social contract in which Russians tacitly agreed to renounce their rights and interests. post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for relative prosperity and internal stability.

Mikhail Zygar, a journalist with many connections to the Kremlin elite and who has published a best-selling book about Putin and his entourage, notes that the invasion was completely unexpected. not only to the public but also to Putin’s closest associates.

“They were all shocked,” Zygar said. “None of them wanted to see things turn out that way just because they’d lose everything. Now they’re all covered in blood, and they all understand that they have nowhere else to run.”

Stanislav Belkovsky, a longtime political consultant with extensive connections between the ruling classes, describes the invasion as a mechanism of “self-destruction for Putin, his regime and the Russian Federation” .”

As Russian troops retreated under attack from Western-armed Ukrainian forces, Putin enhanced his advantage by annexing four regions of Ukraine and announcing a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists. to fortify the crumbling front lines.

The poorly organized call caused widespread chaos. The military is having a hard time resupplying recruits, many of whom are required to buy their own medical kits and other basics and are left sleeping on the floor while they wait to be brought out. matrix.

Social networks have been buzzing with discussions about how to dodge recruitment, and hundreds of thousands of men have fled the campaign, flooding Russia’s borders with its former Soviet neighbours. .

The mobilization, Kolesnikov noted, has eroded Putin’s core support base and set the stage for potential political upheaval. “After the partial mobilization, it was impossible to explain to anyone that he stabilized the system. He broke the foundation of stability,” he said.

The military defeat also prompted outrage from some of Putin’s top lieutenants towards military leaders. The Kremlin has done nothing to stem the criticism, a signal that Putin could use it to set the stage for a massive shakeup for the top brass and blame them for the failures. lose.

“Internal infighting between powerful clans in Putin’s entourage could destabilize the system and significantly weaken Putin’s ability to control the situation in the country,” Belkovsky said.

The growing turmoil marks a stark contrast to the image of stability Putin has cultivated since taking power in 2000. He has repeatedly described the tumultuous period of the people’s rule. Boris Yeltsin’s predecessor, was a period of decline when the nation’s wealth was stolen by Kremlin-linked tycoons. and the West while millions of people live in poverty.

Russians have eagerly embraced Putin’s promises to restore their country’s grandeur amid a prosperous oil-fueled economy, and they have been largely indifferent to the crackdown. Kremlin’s unwavering commitment to political freedoms.

Insiders who have carefully studied Putin’s thinking say that he still believes he can become a winner.

Belkovsky argues that Putin hopes to win by using energy as a tool of pressure. By reducing the flow of gas to Europe and reaching an agreement with OPEC to reduce oil production, he can push up prices and put pressure on the US and its allies.

Mr. Belkovsky said Putin wants the West to tacitly accept the status quo in Ukraine, resume energy cooperation with Russia, lift the most crippling sanctions and free up Russian assets.

“He still believes that he will achieve his goal in a long-term confrontation with the West, where the situation on the Ukrainian front is only an important but not decisive factor,” Belkovsky said.

At the same time, Putin threatened to use “all available means” to defend the newly annexed Ukrainian territories in a blunt attempt to force Ukraine and its Western allies to back down.

The United States and its allies say they are taking Putin’s threats seriously but will not yield to what they describe as blackmail to force the West to abandon Ukraine. Ukraine has vowed to pressurize counterattacks despite Russia’s rhetoric.

Kolesnikov describes Putin’s nuclear threats as a reflection of growing despair.

“This is the final step for him in the sense that this is a suicidal move,” Kolesnikov said. “If he is ready for the step, that means we are seeing a dictator even worse than Stalin.”

Some observers have suggested that NATO could strike Russia with conventional weapons if Putin pressed the nuclear button.

Belkovsky warned that Putin firmly believes that the United States and its allies will not dare to respond if Russia uses low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“If the US believes that there is no psychological readiness for that, then it is wrong,” he said.

Zygar compared the Russian leader to a fighter pilot who tries to win a dogfight by striking the enemy head-on and waiting for him to turn away first.

“He thinks he has the guts and he believes he has to escalate to the end,” Zygar said.

He noted that experts did not predict Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion simply because they were using rational criteria.

“Our previous perception of reasonable limits has been proven wrong,” he said. “There is no such limit.”


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