'Kherson is liberated': Why Ukraine's victories could embolden Vladimir Putin to go to extremes

'Kherson is liberated': Why Ukraine's victories could embolden Vladimir Putin to go to extremes
Image via Creative Commons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022 on orders from President Vladimir Putin, was supposed to be a quick, efficient operation. But it didn’t work out that way. Ukrainian forces turned out to be much better fighters than Putin anticipated, and after eight and one-half months, the Russian military is still struggling in Ukraine.

Moreover, U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration — along with their NATO allies — have been a major thorn in Putin’s side, showing their solidarity with Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky. Biden has maintained that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, but he hasn’t been shy about sanctioning Russia economically.

Never-Trump conservative Benjamin Parker analyzes Ukraine’s recent military victories in an article published by The Bulwark on November 14, speculating on what could happen if Russia were to lose control of Crimea, which it formally annexed in 2014.

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“Kherson is liberated,” Parker observes. “What’s next? There’s ample speculation — encouraged by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — that the cities of Melitopol and Mariupol to the east might be next. That would break the ‘land bridge’ that Russian forces control connecting Russia to Crimea. Thanks to the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge in October, liberating Mariupol would cut off Russian forces in Crimea from their last supply lines.”

Parker goes on to note that Crimea has “been under Moscow’s control for years, not months,” posing the question, “What kind of reception would Ukrainian forces find there?”

“Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Crimea voted reliably with most of southern and eastern Ukraine in supporting candidates and parties friendly to Moscow,” Parker explains. “But in 2010, when Sergei Aksyonov led a party called Russian Unity in Crimea’s regional legislative elections on a platform of joining Russia, his party received just 4 percent of the vote. There’s a big difference between supporting friendly relations with an enormous neighbor and wanting to become part of that neighbor — just ask any Canadian.”

Parker notes that the Ukrainian government “is almost definitely cultivating sources in Crimea that will help it gauge the reception its military is likely to receive.”

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“The shape of the military operation to retake the peninsula will depend on whether the population is expected to be primarily welcoming or more ambivalent,” Parker writes. “Ukraine’s future security and economic viability depend on Crimea not being held by a hostile power…. Ukraine is as justified in retaking Crimea as it was in retaking Kherson.”

For all the misery the invasion of Ukraine has inflicted on Ukrainians, the invasion hasn’t gone well for Russia militarily, politically or economically — and a question that worries the Biden Administration and the Pentagon is: If Putin is feeling desperate, what is he capable of? Would Putin really use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine?

In an article published by The Atlantic on November 11, Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns of the potential dangers posed by an increasingly desperate Putin.

“What makes the situation so hazardous is President Vladimir Putin’s mercurial and impulsive decision making,” Gabuev writes. “From the start, the war in Ukraine has provided numerous examples of Putin’s emotional overreactions to events, and of his miscalculations. Putin’s move to annex Crimea in 2014 in response to revolution in Kyiv was one such decision, and it has given the peninsula a totemic significance in Russia’s war. Judging by his statements and conduct, the Russian leader appears to believe that the conflict he started (is) existential.”

Gabuev uses terms like “existential” and “survival” frequently in his article to emphasize that Putin views control of Crimea as essential to Russia’s well-being.

“Given what we know about the Russian leader, no evidence suggests that he is prepared to vacate the illegally annexed territories — especially Crimea, which Putin sees as a defining aspect of his legacy,” Gabuev explains. “If Putin is unable to defend Crimea conventionally, then not to use all means at his disposal, including nuclear weapons, could lead to his being perceived in Moscow as weak; in Putin’s eyes at least, that could endanger his domestic political survival. The Kremlin’s equivocal messaging about its red lines, and its failure to enforce them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

During the Cold War, the threat of “mutually assured destruction” loomed over U.S./Soviet relations. MAD argued that the Americans and Soviets had a joint interest in avoiding a thermonuclear war, due to the likelihood of it destroying the planet.

But recent developments indicate that cultural memory is fleeting.

Journalist Thomas Kika, in an article for Newsweek published on November 12, reports that at a rally in Moscow over the weekend, some attendees were “calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch a nuclear strike against Washington, D.C.” Putin himself was not present at the event.

“A clip from the rally was shared to Twitter on Saturday morning, (November 12) by Julia Davis, creator of the Russian Media Monitor and columnist for The Daily Beast,” Kika reports. “In the video, a man can be seen leading a crowd of people through the streets of Moscow and through chants calling for attacks on Washington.”

In the U.S., the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine have been a combination of Democrats and non-MAGA conservatives such as Rep. Liz Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Never Trump neocon Bill Kristol. Meanwhile, far-right isolationist MAGA Republicans have been calling for the U.S. to stay out of the conflict, including Sen. Josh Hawley, J.D. Vance (who defeated Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race) and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — and former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an ex-Democrat who has gone total MAGA, agrees with them.

In an article published by Salon on November 13, scholar Tyler A. Harper (who teaches at Bates College in Maine) argues, “As one of those ‘woke leftists’ the Trumpists like to complain about, I am generally not in the habit of agreeing with folks like Carlson or (House Minority Leader Kevin) McCarthy on quite literally anything. However, as an academic whose research specializes in human extinction — and who is very concerned that the prospect of nuclear war over Ukraine is not being taken nearly seriously enough — I am forced to admit that the conservative lunatics are right. The current administration and popular media outlets have endorsed a course of action in Ukraine that is pushing the world inexorably toward a catastrophe that could not only spell the demise of modern civilization, but could quite possibly put us on the road toward human extinction.”

Conservative Republicans Cheney and Kinzinger — along with many pro-Biden Democrats — have a very different viewpoint. They believe that the world in general will be much better off if Putin is defeated in Ukraine, and that Russian success in Ukraine would create more instability in the world, not less.

The Kremlin was paying very close attention to the United States’ 2022 midterms elections, hoping that if enough Republicans defeated Democrats, it would thwart the Biden Administration’s pro-Zelensky, pro-Ukraine agenda. But the massive red wave the Kremlin was hoping for did not materialize. When Nevada’s U.S. Senate race was called for incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto on November 12, Democrats knew they would maintain control of the Senate — although Republicans appear to be on track for obtaining a narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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