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Putin pins Ukraine hopes on winter and divisive US politics

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Image source, EPA

It feels like I’m watching a scene from a James Bond film.

Somewhere near Moscow, Russia’s president is up on stage being quizzed about the Apocalypse. The moderator reminds Putin he had once predicted that, after a nuclear war, Russians would go to heaven.

“We’re in no rush to get there, are we?” the moderator enquires hopefully.

There’s a long, uncomfortable pause. Seven seconds of silence.

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“Your silence is worrying me,” the moderator says.

“It was meant to,” replies Putin with a chuckle.

Vladimir Putin at the Valdai Discussion Club

Image source, Reuters

Forgive me for not laughing. This is no Hollywood blockbuster with a guaranteed happy ending. The events of the last eight months are a real-life drama that has brought untold suffering to Ukraine and, many believe, the world closer to nuclear conflict than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago.

So, where does the screenplay go from here?

Much depends on the answer to this question: how far is Vladimir Putin prepared to go to secure victory – or to avoid defeat – in Ukraine?

If you re-read his address to the nation from 24 February – the speech he made after ordering the invasion of Ukraine – you may conclude he will do whatever it takes:

“And now a few important – very important – words to those who may be tempted to meddle from the sidelines in what’s happening. Those who try to get in our way, or create threats to our country and our people, should be aware: Russia’s response will be instantaneous and bring the kind of consequences you have never experienced in history.”

Outside Russia, “consequences you have never experienced in history” was widely interpreted as unashamed nuclear sabre-rattling. And, in the months that followed, the rattling continued.

In April, President Putin threatened “a lightning-fast response [if] anyone tries to interfere from the sidelines and create a strategic threat to Russia. We have all the weapons we need for this”. In September he added his infamous one-liner: “This is no bluff.”

This week, at the Valdai Discussion Club (scene of that long, worrying pause I described earlier), President Putin was sending mixed signals. He denied having any intention of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin at the Valdai Discussion Club

Image source, EPA

“We see no need for that,” he said. “There is no point, neither political, nor military.”

But on the side-lines of the Discussion Club, you couldn’t escape that rattling.

“There is a risk of Russia using nuclear weapons. Not against Ukraine, but against the West,” said Dmitry Suslov, a member of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

“If a single American missile hits Russian military infrastructure inside Russia, we would make an historic jump towards nuclear Armageddon. According to official Russian nuclear doctrine, Russia would launch a strategic nuclear strike against the US and all Nato countries as soon as we witness the launch of Western missiles against our territory, no matter how they are armed. Then the whole planet will die.”

Alarming rhetoric? Definitely.

A realistic scenario? I’m not so sure. Setting aside presidential pauses (most likely, for dramatic effect) and recent Russian rhetoric, I think it is unlikely the Kremlin right now is planning nuclear escalation in the Ukraine war.

Especially when you consider the five Ms:

Midterms

As the US midterm elections approach, the Kremlin will know that the Republican Party has a chance of winning control of Congress.

A Donald Trump supporter at a rally in Mesa, Arizona, 9 October 2022

Image source, Reuters

Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy warned that Republicans will not write a “blank cheque” for Ukraine if they win back the House majority.

That will have been music to President Putin’s ears. Even though it is unclear whether American assistance to Ukraine would be significantly impacted by a Republican victory, the Kremlin will welcome any prospect of a reduction in US military aid to Kyiv.

Graphic showing aid to Ukraine by different governments

Midwinter

Vladimir Putin still seems to be calculating that, with Russian energy supplies to Europe severely curtailed, a cold winter will worsen Europe’s energy and cost of living crises and force Western governments to compromise with the Kremlin: reducing their support for Ukraine in exchange for Russian energy.

Windows in Dnipro, Ukraine, 27 October 2022

Image source, EPA

So far, though, Europe looks better prepared for winter than Moscow expected.

A milder than normal October, combined with increased supplies of liquified natural gas, mean that gas reserves have been topped up and gas prices in Europe have plunged.

Wholesale gas price graphic

But if temperatures plunge, too, pressure may grow. Especially on Ukraine, where the Russian military has been pounding the country’s energy infrastructure.

Mobilisation

In recent days we’ve seen Vladimir Putin taking steps to mobilise the whole of the Russian economy and Russian industry for the needs of his “special military operation”.

In many ways it feels as if the whole of the country has been placed on a long-term war footing. A sign, perhaps, that the Kremlin is preparing now for a protracted war in Ukraine.

Mutually assured destruction

A Cold War creation that still applies today: the assumption that if one side launches nuclear weapons, the other side will respond in kind and everyone dies. There are no winners in a nuclear war. Vladimir Putin will know that.

Disclaimer. All of the above is based on the premise it would be logical to assume that there will be no nuclear component to the Ukraine war.

There is just one problem. Logic went out of the window here on 24 February. And wars do not necessarily develop logically.

If there is one thing the Cuban Missile Crisis taught the world, it was how the planet can suddenly find itself on the edge of destruction as a result of miscalculations and miscommunication.

Which brings me on to one final “M”…

Mistakes

A Russian reservist bids farewell to relatives before his mobilisation in the town of Gatchina, Leningrad Region, 1 October 2022

Image source, Reuters

President Putin’s “special operation” has not gone according to plan. What was supposed to have taken days – maximum weeks – has dragged on for months. The Kremlin appears to have completely underestimated the scale of Ukrainian resistance, as well as misjudging Western support for Kyiv and the tsunami of international sanctions Russia would face.

And, despite pledging early on that only “professional soldiers” would do the fighting, President Putin eventually had to declare “partial mobilisation”. What’s more, in recent weeks as a result of a Ukrainian counter-offensive, Russian troops have been losing some of the territory they had occupied.

But one thing Vladimir Putin rarely admits to is making mistakes. For now, he seems determined to pursue this war and emerge with something he can call a victory.

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