Opinion: Desperate Putin will twist, not stick

Editor’s note: James Nixey is Director of the Russia-Eurasia Program at Chatham House, specializing in relations between Russia and other post-Soviet states. He previously worked as an investigative reporter for the Moscow Tribune. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.



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Russia is losing the war against Ukraine. He is not defeated yet. But it is heading in that direction and President Vladimir Putin has fewer and fewer cards to play.

A combination of recent battlefield failures and Western decisions – in particular, that Europe can barely survive the winter in its reserves without Russia’s usual volume of energy supplies, and that Western politicians have been unwilling to roll over and accept defeat – has challenged Russia. a one-two punch.

Its perceived military might and its status as an energy superpower upon which the Europeans depended were widely, and poorly viewed, Russia’s strongest assets.

So Putin, an extremist badly misled by his sympathies about Russia’s real capabilities, has been forced to ‘twist’ – in card parlance – to up the ante with his latest nuclear threats (he’s been doing this for 15 years), and the partial mobilization of what he believes to be 300,000 reservists. from the middle, but with less political risk.

It is, of course, the threat of the use of nuclear weapons that gives Western decision-makers pause and, in some cases, quandary, as it is meant to do. It should not, after all, be taken lightly from a state that has reverted to fascism and has just over half of the world’s nuclear weapons.

However, the majority of Western and now non-Western powers are realizing that nuclear blackmail cannot be given in, and that the consequences of Russia winning the war would have debilitating consequences for European and global security. Many world leaders may want to make concessions over the heads of Ukrainian leaders. But it is politically inconvenient to do so when the aggressor and the victim are so clearly distinguished from each other. And when Russia is on the run.

In any case, the latest research published by Chatham House says that the threshold for Russia to use nuclear weapons is very high. The professional Russian military cadre has procedures and processes in place, which means there are plenty of checks and balances before using nuclear weapons.

Threatening a pre-emptive nuclear attack is one thing, but serious people in important positions in Russia know that the consequences would be extreme, not least that it would bring many more countries into the war with more and more weapons. Proliferating a nuclear weapon is not impossible – it is a dangerous situation in itself – but it remains impossible.

All that said, many Western politicians are still afraid to call for a real defeat of Russia: they fear the consequences of the actions of a desperate dictator or the implosion of Russia (with an even more extreme leader). Especially the leaders of the US, Germany and France have not been so bold as to ask for it specifically, even if they do not want to favor or give to Russia.

Instead, they talk more vaguely about Russian crimes and helping Ukraine (“for as long as it takes,” said German Chancellor Scholz, cheering). But they cannot conjure up a defeated Russia and ritualistically talk about not humiliating Russia (or even Putin) without making the connection that successfully helping Ukraine regain its territorial integrity would greatly humiliate the Kremlin.

Indeed, politicians are right to fear a weakened and humiliated Russia. But logic suggests that they should be even more careful with the strong and bold.

Putin’s address on Wednesday therefore changes little, certainly not the Ukrainian decision, although it probably frightens the Russian population further for fear of being caught in the draft. Many Russians still accept it (or at least are ambivalent about it), but most don’t want to fight either.

Also, Russia will still have little influence on the referendums that will be held in the Donbas region of Ukraine. In fact, these “votes” are not even designed to give the appearance of legitimacy as in many other “elections” in Russia. That’s too much for all but the most ardent Putin apologists. At best, the referendums can provide a pretext for a wider mobilization of Russia and in the event that war is now being waged on Russian territory, thereby justifying a new push for reserves and their inevitable sacrifice.

Putin’s likely next move then, as he desperately seeks new ways to tip the dial in his favor, will be conventional weapons attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and “traditional” hybrid warfare against the West, in his eyes the real enemy (according to him). words).

This is to be expected. Russia is down but not out. The Red Army fought against Finland badly in 1939 and was pushed back by the Nazis in 1941. But they regrouped and came back strong in the later stages of the war. More recently, in Chechnya in the late 1990s, Russia turned it around (somewhat with increased brutality) after a “bad” start. This is no time for Western complacency.

Putin’s regime is outwardly stable. Only the hairline breaks are showing today (the odd mid-level defection, occasional dissent from his friends’ outer circles, and, of course, this latest announcement itself).

But the more he fails, the more his military commanders will lose confidence in him, to a degree they haven’t already. This would be the best outcome: a regime change from within, not at the hands of the West or even politics. And it’s not available. This war will bring down Putin.