'This is so crazy': Vladimir Putin is running out of options in Ukraine. Experts are split on what it means
Russian President Vladimir Putin's February 24th invasion of Ukraine is an undeniable disaster for the 69-year-old former spy.
Seven months in, tens of thousands of his soldiers have been captured or killed. Combat equipment that has not been destroyed or disabled has been commandeered by the Western-backed Ukrainian resistance led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose latest counteroffensive campaigns have stalled Putin's fighters and either liberated or recaptured Eastern territories that were previously illegally occupied by Russia. Numerous accusations of war crimes and genocide have emerged, and economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and other nations have choked the Russian petrostate economy.
Worse still for Putin, his propagandists on state television who spew out Kremlin-approved daily disinformation, demand that Ukraine be wiped off the map, and threaten to unleash atomic Armageddon have begun to sour on his conquest. Putin's political opposition has even started advocating for him to retreat from Ukraine or abdicate the presidency, despite the enormous potential perils that shadow open defiance.
Growing public dissent and disapproval of Putin's unprovoked war has led to media blackouts, mass arrests of protesters, and citizens skedaddling out of Russia to avoid becoming cannon fodder for "Uncle Vova."
A graphic shared by CNN shows a torrent of planes departing Moscow, underscoring the exodus from the eleven-time-zone ex-empire.
Witness statements to The Guardian likewise showcase the desperate disillusionment that is spreading following Putin's recent announcement that he is conscripting 300,000 men.
"Options to flee are limited. Earlier this week, four of the five EU countries bordering Russia announced they would no longer allow Russians to enter on tourist visas," The Guardian explained, noting that "direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, the capitals of countries allowing Russians visa-free entry, were sold out for the next week, while the cheapest one-way flight from Moscow to Dubai cost about 370,000 rubles (£5,000) – a fee too steep for most."
One reservist named Oleg, who risks imprisonment for desertion, revealed to the publication that he "will be driving across the border tonight" and that he has "no idea when I’ll step foot in Russia again."
According to his conversation with The Guardian, Oleg leaves behind a pregnant wife whose due date is soon approaching.
"I will miss the most important day of my life," he said. "But I am simply not letting Putin turn me into a killer in a war that I want no part in.”
Moreover, The Guardian pointed out that "the ambiguity of Putin’s mobilization law" crushes "previous broken promises that he would not call for one" and that the Russian people now realize that "Putin lied."
Meanwhile, Putin's escalation will take months to implement, and he has reverted to nuclear saber-rattling to dissuade the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from continuing its material support of Ukraine.
Putin said in a Wednesday address:
I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.
The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended — I repeat — by all the systems available to us.
Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.
Zelenskyy and the West, however, have flatly rejected Putin's bluster.
“I don’t believe that he will use these weapons. I don’t think the world will allow him to use these weapons,” Zelenskyy stated to Germany's Bild.
President Joe Biden condemned Putin and his oratory at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City – where Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council – blasting Putin's radioactive rhetoric as "reckless" and "an extremely significant violation” of the UN's charter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden, declaring that Putin's “reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.”
Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Putin is "flailing and failing," while British Prime Minister Liz Truss pledged that the multinational alliance "will not rest until Ukraine prevails."
Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder too said:
In terms of the statements or the announcements coming out of Russia, it does not affect the commitment to continue working closely with our international partners and our allies on providing Ukraine with the support that it needs in their fight to defend their country.
Although experts are cautioning that a cornered Putin is extremely dangerous, the odds of Putin resorting to nukes – or an outbreak of global thermonuclear war, for that matter – are generally considered slim.
Andrey Baklitskiy, a United Nations Institute for Disarmament researcher and expert on weapons of mass destruction, addressed the issue in an interview published on Thursday with Vox correspondent Jen Kirby.
Russian-backed officials in four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Russian troops will soon hold referenda on formally joining Russia. Western countries backing Ukraine have already said they won’t recognize these sham votes. The Russian army also does not have full control over any of these territories — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson — but Moscow will almost certainly use these referenda as a pretext for formally annexing the territories.
Baklitskiy believes that when the referenda are completed next Tuesday, Putin could decree that those areas are part of Russia and that attacks by NATO-armed Ukraine justify shattering the 77-year tactical taboo.
“Nuclear weapons have almost this mystical status; once they’re used, that’s the end of the world,” he said, emphasizing that "it doesn’t change any political calculus on the ground." Baklitskiy then contemplated:
What then? How much have you lost in that moment?
All of a sudden, you’re not one of the countries who have this power to destroy worlds, and everybody has to bend before you.
You’re just a country which has big bombs which can explode.
We only had nuclear use twice in 1945, against a country which didn’t have nuclear weapons, by the way. But it’s a tricky question.
Every time you consider using nuclear weapons, you have to also consider the response from the country which you attacked.
In the tabletop exercises, Russia used its tactical nuclear weapons against a NATO installation. So I think it was the Principals Committee who had to come up with a response: NATO was attacked with nuclear weapons, what do you do? But if you attack mainland Russia, Russia would probably respond in kind. In that scenario, they decided to nuke Belarus, even though Belarus had nothing to do with this. But you had to send a message, and you also didn’t want to escalate it where there would be a full-out nuclear exchange.
When you think of nuclear employment, especially if you’re doing it first, and especially if you don’t plan an all-out [attack], you probably don’t want to use it against someone who can retaliate.
I don’t even know that you would want to use it against populated areas. I mean, this is all like crazy, right?
Critically, Baklitskiy argued:
Use of nuclear weapons under pretty much any conditions, I would say, would be a political decision. It wouldn’t be a military decision to achieve specific military goals. You want to make a point with them.
In that sense, you might not even want to kill anybody, you might just want to have a demonstration, you might want to detonate them over uninhabited territory, just to show your resolve and then make your demands. In that sense, starting any nuclear exchange with nuclear weapon states, I don’t think that’s the first thing which would come to mind to anybody planning that.
Baklitskiy is therefore unconvinced that Putin would actually follow through with a nuclear strike. The price, he opined, is too high.
"I feel bad every time people start talking about nuclear weapons in any way, close to anything about actual use. For a person who studies them and who’s seen the videos of tests and read about the effects — this is so crazy, this is so irrational," he reflected. "Any talk about use which goes opposite the direction of putting them in the closet and locking them up and trying to get rid of them — any hint, any thought about using them is bad. And I still don’t think we are very close to any of this."
Given the circumstances, Baklitsky's optimism is not shared by everybody.
During his address at the UN, Blinken offered a sobering synopsis of the existential dangers facing Ukraine.
“Putin said that Russia would not hesitate to use and I quote, ‘all weapons systems available’ in response to a threat to his territorial integrity — a threat that is all the more menacing given Russians’ intention to annex large swaths of Ukraine in the days ahead,” Blinken said. “When that’s complete, we can expect President Putin will claim any Ukrainian effort to liberate this land as an attack on so-called Russian territory.”
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the Biden Administration has been "sending private communications to Moscow informing Russia’s leadership of the grave consequences that would follow the use of a nuclear weapon" and that those missives mirror the messaging that "Biden and his aides have articulated publicly."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told the Post that “what everyone needs to recognize is that this is one of, if not the most, severe episodes in which nuclear weapons might be used in decades," warning that "the consequences of even a so-called ‘limited nuclear war’ would be absolutely catastrophic.”
Vadym Skibitskyi, the deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence agreed and added that the possibility of Russia nuking Ukraine is not out of the question and that such an extreme action would affect vast portions of the European continent beyond Ukraine's borders.
“This is a threat for other countries,” Skibitskyi said on the United Kingdom's ITV News, per the Post's report. “The blast of a tactical nuclear weapon will have an impact not only in Ukraine but the Black Sea region.”
In any event, nobody knows how long Putin's war will last or what will ultimately usher in an end to the bloody conflict. But there are people working diligently to ensure that Putin heeds Biden's urging from Sunday's edition of 60 Minutes regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t," Biden replied to a hypothetical scenario. "You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”
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