Vladimir Putin's 'fundamentalist mindset' could lead him to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine: journalist
Within days of launching his "special military operation" in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin began threatening to tap into Russia's vast atomic arsenal to deter the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization from aiding the Ukrainians in the fight for their democratic nation's right to exist. Throughout the last eight months, scores of analysts have picked apart Putin's bluster and ruminated over the likelihood of a nuclear strike actually happening.
President Joe Biden along with numerous officials in his administration have warned Putin of "catastrophic consequences" if he shatters the fissile taboo, and intelligence reports have consistently indicated that Moscow has not made any significant moves that would suggest that such an attack is imminent. This has led to a generalized agreement that the chances of Putin unleashing the bomb are low, even as his invasion forces face recurring setbacks and catastrophic losses of blood, steel, and strategy.
On Tuesday, however, columnist Masha Gessen published a piece in The New Yorker explaining why the West's cautious optimism may be perilously misplaced.
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"The more the Kremlin has signaled its readiness to drop a nuclear bomb, the more the rest of the world has sought a reason to believe that it will not," writes Gessen, noting several examples of individuals with expertise on the matter.
"These reassurances tend to rely on arguments that fall into three categories: Putin fears the consequences of a nuclear strike, Putin is unwilling to put Russian citizens at risk, and a nuclear strike will not help accomplish Putin’s strategic goals," he continues, adding that he sees potentially disastrous errors in those assessments.
"When we say that someone isn’t acting rationally, what we mean is that we do not understand the world in which the person’s actions are rational. The problem is not so much that Putin is irrational; the problem is that there is a world in which it is rational for him to move ever closer to a nuclear strike, and most Western analysts cannot comprehend the logic of that world," Gessen says. "We can’t imagine the very real possibility that he will follow through."
In order to predict what Putin may or may not do, Gessen believes that Putin's decision-making processes have to be understood from his perspective.
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"Putin sees his mission in grander and less pragmatic terms. He believes that, on the one hand, he is facing down an existential threat to Russia and, on the other, that Western nations don’t have the strength of their convictions to retaliate if it comes to nukes. Any small sign of a crack in the Western consensus—be it French President Emmanuel Macron pressuring Ukraine to enter peace negotiations, or the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy criticizing what he sees as unconditional aid to Ukraine—bolsters Putin’s certainty. An army of yes-men and the propaganda machine amplify both the threat Russia ostensibly faces and the support it supposedly enjoys," says Gessen, noting that "Putin’s world view—in which he, a once-lowly K.G.B. bureaucrat, wields a mighty sword that will save the world from decadence and decay—is the product of his specific background and historical moment, but it also belongs to a recognizable type of thought."
Putin is also paranoid about supposed enemies of himself and Russia – whether real or imagined – and has largely isolated himself from the dangers that he perceives. Behaviors such as sitting at absurdly long tables, or living alone in empty palaces or secret bunkers, are well-documented.
In establishing himself as Russia's absolute executive, Gessen states that Putin has a "fundamentalist mindset" that is "apocalyptic and millenarian" and contains hints of historical rationalizations of genocide.
"The threat against which Russia must wield its nuclear shield is the encroachment of the West, framed variously as the expansion of nato, an assault on traditional values, the advancement of 'gender ideology,' and a spreading decadence. All of it adds up to an existential threat to Russia, which in Putin’s view is a besieged island of heterosexuality, whiteness, and truth," Gessen writes. The unending barrage on state television of simulations of annihilating Western cities and false claims that Ukraine is controlled by Nazis is another grim testament to the Kremlin's dependence on propaganda to tighten the regime's grip on the population.
Russia's recent, unfounded allegation that Ukraine is planning to detonate a radiological bomb in a false flag operation that it can then blame on Russia further compounds the evidence that Putin does not share the West's concerns about using nuclear-grade armaments.
Thus, Gessen's determination is that "every 'rational' case for why Putin won’t use nuclear weapons in Ukraine falls short. He is not afraid of losing support from his current allies, because he misapprehends Russia’s position in the world; he sees Russia as politically, economically, and militarily stronger than it is." Furthermore, Gessen thinks that Putin would view criticism and opposition to his potential deployment of nuclear weapons as a weakness on the part of his detractors, rather than a reflection of his desperation to offset his blunderous invasion of Ukraine.
Gessen, therefore, concluded that "the arguments that Putin won’t use nuclear weapons because doing so would endanger Russians, including himself, are blind to the fact that Putin believes he has the right, possibly the moral obligation, to sacrifice hundreds of thousands or millions of people. The argument that a nuclear strike wouldn’t help Putin achieve his strategic goals mistakes Russia’s strategic goals as anything but inflicting terror on Ukrainians. The losses the Russian military is suffering now can only motivate Putin to create more terror, against more people."
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