Putin is cornered and dangerous – the prospect of a nuclear war is now closer than ever

Putin is cornered and dangerous – the prospect of a nuclear war is now closer than ever

Vladimir Putin is desperate and quite possibly deranged. On Tuesday night, seven months after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president was on the brink of pushing through a series of measures that will escalate the war at a time when the Kremlin is losing. The prospect of Putin ordering nuclear strikes is closer now than ever. A cold chill has descended as winter approaches.

Putin was due to make a televised address to the nation outlining a new strategy on Tuesday night. The speech was mysteriously delayed, after a chorus of condemnation at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Kremlin is planning two changes in policy that run in parallel. New laws passed on Tuesday in the state Duma, Russia’s lower house, pave the way for mass mobilisation.

At the same time, the occupied regions of Ukraine, including in Luhansk and Donetsk, will hold referendums on “unification” with Russia.

The upshot of those sham votes, due to take place between September 23 and 27, will be to make those regions Russian sovereign territory. Should Ukraine then continue its push to reclaim its land, Moscow would insist that the Russian nation is under attack. And that would give Putin the excuse to launch tactical nuclear weapons, allegedly in defence of the motherland.

The consequences would, of course, be catastrophic.

What Ukraine, and crucially the West, will have to weigh up is how serious is the nuclear threat. Is Putin, his back to the wall, likely to carry out an attack that would risk turning Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, into a nuclear wasteland? What would be the point in Moscow trying to occupy Ukraine, if only to obliterate it?

Ahead of Putin’s speech, the Duma, which, of course, the president controls, passed amendments to Russia’s criminal code that in effect lay down the legal foundations for mass mobilisation. At the start of the war in February when Putin was calling the invasion a “special military operation”, Russia had amassed 200,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. But Moscow has suffered heavy losses – estimates suggest as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded – and its army is seriously depleted.

The new rules have introduced stricter punishment for desertion and refusal to fight during martial law. The new rules also identified looting and “voluntary surrender” as separate crimes punishable with 15 and 10 years in prison, respectively.

Russia’s Right has been pressing for mass mobilisation and this could just be a sign that a seriously weakened Putin is pandering to those demands. The squeeze is on.

There is no guarantee that a general mobilisation – something like a Vietnam war draft – would actually help turn around Putin’s fortunes in Ukraine. It would anyway take at least three months to train up troops, time Putin may not have. Deploying untrained soldiers to conquer a hostile, motivated enemy state could easily backfire. The prospect of Russian public opinion turning against Putin if middle-class, conscripted soldiers are killed on the battlefield could have far reaching repercussions at home.

Rob Lee, a Russian defence expert and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “Even if Russia mobilises – and I think deploying currently serving conscripts is more likely – almost all of these factors still favour Ukraine, including over the medium to long-term. A large number of poorly trained and motivated soldiers isn’t a huge advantage.”

Ukraine’s lightning counter-offensive in the Donbas has put Putin’s back against the wall. He is cornered and dangerous.

Russia has struggled to recruit men for the front. An unnamed US defence official was quoted as saying on Monday that Wagner, the notorious Russian private military contractor, had been struggling to recruit 1,500 men from Russian prisons to fight in exchange for their freedom. Many prisoners have simply refused to sign up, all too aware of how badly the war is going.

The second major initiative, pushed by the Kremlin, is for a series of referendums in occupied eastern and southern Ukraine that are currently run by puppet, pro-Kremlin regimes. With Ukraine reclaiming territory at a rapid rate, the act of making the occupied land formerly part of Russia will cause alarm in the West.

The Kremlin last month had to scrap similar votes in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson as Ukraine reclaimed vast swathes of land. But there is a renewed urgency to ensure the votes go ahead now.

The self-proclaimed leader of Luhansk, which has been under de-facto Russia control since 2014, on Tuesday signed a bill to hold the vote on a possible Russian annexation.

A senior official in Kherson, which was captured by Russia in March, said on Tuesday his administration had decided to hold the vote “in the nearest future”.

“I am confident that Russian leadership will accept the results of the referendum, and the Kherson region will join Russia and become a full-fledged member of the state,” Vladimir Saldo said in a video statement.

Tuesday’s appeals show the puppet governments’ growing anxiety about their own future as Ukrainian forces moved closer to capturing the areas they control.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president who recently emerged as a major cheerleader for the Right and the war effort, said on Tuesday that Moscow should go ahead with the annexation to present the world with a new reality that no future leader can change in future.

“The geopolitical transformation in the world will be irreversible once the referendums are held and the new territories join Russia,” he said.

The move to declare new territory comes with a chilling warning that Russia will use “all means” to defend itself. It raises the prospect of Russia deploying nuclear weapons.

The two measures together, said Tanya Stanovaya, a shrewd follower of the Kremlin, amount to “an absolutely unequivocally ultimatum to Ukraine and the West. Either Ukraine retreats, or it is nuclear war”.

Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, the radical nationalist FSB colonel turned bitterly critical war blogger, put it another way: “Finally the leadership of Russia understands the total nature (total victory or total defeat) of the war in the so-called Ukraine,” he wrote.

The nuclear sabre has been rattled before in this conflict, especially on Russian federal television – and setting out a path to escalation as a threat is a long way from actually carrying it out.

Mutual Assured Destruction, the mechanism that has prevented nuclear war in the past, has not gone away. Putin must know the West would answer such a strike with devastating consequences.

There is no guarantee either that an order to use such a disastrous weapon would be followed by the chain of command.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is taking delivery of ever more effective Western weaponry. It also has large numbers of fighting age men it has not yet called up. At the moment it holds battlefield initiative.

Ms Stanovaya argues the announcements are partially a demonstration to get the enemy’s attention. Putin, she says, does not want to win on the battlefield but wants Kyiv to just give up.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London, is not convinced the threat of a nuclear strike will deter the West from backing Ukraine. “The prospect of nuclear use might engender panic in Ukraine and NATO,” he posted on Twitter, “It is also hard to imagine that the news would be greeted calmly in Russia. It could intensify opposition in Moscow to Putin. He would need a compliant chain of command.”

It seems likely Nato will not now back down. Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, said on Twitter: 

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Last Update: Tue, 20 Sep 22 19:00:06