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Vladimir Putin’s doom-laden threats in yesterday’s eerie early morning TV broadcast will have sent chills to many.
The Kremlin despot, who commands the world’s largest nuclear stockpile of nearly 6,000 warheads, has threatened the West with brutal retaliation for its continued support for Ukraine.
Or, as he put it, in his twisted narrative: “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect our people – this is not a bluff.”
It is easy to characterize this threat as the chatter of a madman. Still paranoid about catching Covid and concerned about assassination attempts, Putin spends most of his time in the Kremlin or one of its many palaces.
He surrounds himself with yes-men who cringe when they’re spouting half-truths — or whatever they think their boss wants to hear. And when things go wrong, the hunt for scapegoats intensifies.
And now things are really going wrong.
Edward Lucas: ‘As Russia finds itself on the diplomatic scene, it is becoming increasingly isolated, a pariah status highlighted by Putin’s absence at the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York’
In bomb-ravaged Ukraine, Putin’s forces are rapidly withdrawing, leaving traces of horrific war crimes.
On the diplomatic scene, Russia is increasingly isolated, a pariah status highlighted by Putin’s absence from the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York.
What this latest escalation proves, however, is that Putin will never accept defeat. And the longer this failing war continues, the angrier the architect will become.
But does the threat of Armageddon mean he’s now completely lost his marbles? Or was yesterday’s speech a carefully crafted warning to the West?
The answer is not clear-cut. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said of Putin that he lives “in another world”. Personally, I find it easiest to think of him as a gangland boss.
Like any mafioso boss, he wants to project a terrifying image. But that doesn’t mean he’s a madman. Instead, he just sees things differently from the rest of us.
He has no interest in fair governance. Corruption is not a crime, but a political instrument.
Abuse of power is how he rewards his friends and punishes his enemies. And facts only matter if they fit his version of reality.
Protests have erupted in Moscow after Putin’s announcement of reservist mobilization. Here the riot police are holding a protester
Putin’s justification for the war in Ukraine has always been based on a central lie: that he is trying to free the country from the neo-Nazi leadership.
At the moment, Putin is desperate – as evidenced by the “partial mobilization” of up to 300,000 military reservists announced yesterday by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
But no amount of poorly trained soldiers will fix Russia’s rumpled army. Putin’s military leaders know this.
Like Hitler’s generals 80 years ago, they see their commander in chief, far from being the strategic genius he thinks he is, fighting a losing battle.
The ‘war of words’ represents the only battlefield where Putin can still effectively flex his muscles.
But we’ve been here before. Putin first raised the specter of a nuclear holocaust at the start of the attack six months ago. And while he’s desperate now, he’s not suicidal (not yet, at least).
And he is sure that any nuclear attack, even on non-Nato Ukraine, would be disastrous for Russia, bring no appreciable military advantage and provoke international outrage.
When it comes to brute force, the West as a collective is much bigger and much stronger than Russia. Moreover, such a move would alienate Russia’s biggest supporter, China, which has repeatedly warned not to make this war nuclear.
Edward Lucas: Right now Putin is desperate – as evidenced by the ‘partial mobilization’ of up to 300,000 military reservists announced yesterday by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
Putin also has to wonder whether his holly-eyed generals would actually follow his orders to push Russia into the nuclear abyss.
His hope, then, is that terrifying rhetoric will panic the West by reducing their support for Ukraine and helping to organize a ceasefire, a deal that may well involve territorial concessions to Russia, leaving Putin the victor. can run away.
But, as Liz Truss demonstrated this week in her pledge to meet or exceed the £2.3bn spent so far on aid for Ukraine by 2023, Britain won’t blink. President Biden shows no signs of flinching either.
So, in a final hopeless battle for control, could Putin hit the proverbial button? It’s not completely unachievable.
However, I believe we are witnessing Putin’s final stage. Like any aging mob boss, he feels his power ebbing away.
If history teaches us anything, it is that Russian tsars do not tend to die peacefully in their sleep.
For years, Putin wrote the national story of his country, with himself as the main character. But now a new chapter is looming – and it will be written by others.
New rulers would certainly find it easy to scapegoat Putin for the disastrous war in Ukraine. They might push for a ceasefire and hope that a war-weary world will settle for an imperfect peace.
Of course, until he gets the slap on the shoulder or falls victim to a bloody coup in the Kremlin, the nuclear option remains a last resort for an increasingly cornered Putin.
But in the end, even the threat of harnessing the full power of the Russian arsenal will not save him from inevitable and self-inflicted demise.