A cornered Putin is more dangerous than ever

Vladimir Putin’s menacing televised address Wednesday was much more than a bid to change the course of his faltering war against Ukraine. It attempted to invert a war of aggression against a neighbor into one of defense of a threatened “motherland,” a theme that resonates with Russians steeped in patriotic history.

Putin, Russia’s president, aimed at nothing less than altering the meaning of the war for his country, raising the stakes for the entire world. He warned the West in unmistakable terms — “this is not a bluff” — that the attempt to weaken or defeat Russia could provoke nuclear cataclysm.

Rattling his nuclear saber, accusing the West of seeking to “destroy” his country and ordering the call-up of 300,000 military reservists, Putin implicitly conceded that the war he started Feb. 24 has not gone as he wished. He painted the Ukrainians as mere pawns of the “military machine of the collective West.”

A destroyed Russian tank in Velyka Dymerka, near Brovary, Ukraine one May 17, 2022. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

By veering far from his original objective of demilitarizing and “de-Nazifying” all of Ukraine, he made a nonsense of the Kremlin’s far-fetched claims that the war was proceeding according to plan, and tacitly acknowledged something he had always denied: the reality and growing resistance of a unified Ukrainian nation.

But Putin cornered is Putin at his most dangerous. That was one of the core lessons of his hardscrabble youth that he took from the furious reaction of a rat he cornered on a stairwell in what was then Leningrad.

“Russia won its defensive wars against Napoleon and Hitler, and the most important thing Putin did here from a psychological perspective was to claim this, too, is a defensive war,” said Michel Eltchaninoff, the French author of “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin.” “It was an aggressive war. Now it’s the defense of the Russian world against the Western attempt at dismemberment.”

Residents receive aid from a group of police officers and soldiers in Lysychansk, Ukraine, June 16, 2022. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

In Putin’s telling, that imagined world imbued with some inalienable Russian essence has grown in size. He said Russia would support imminent referendums in four regions of Ukraine on whether to join Russia — votes denounced by Ukraine and the West as a sham, and a likely prelude to annexation.

The Kremlin has signaled that if it absorbs that territory, the Ukrainian counter-offensives underway in the east and south to recapture territory seized by Russia would be considered attacks on Russian soil, justifying any level of retaliation, up to and including a nuclear response.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will of course use all means at our disposal to defend Russia and our people,” Putin said.

His speech, which may of course be a bluff despite his denial, nevertheless placed before the West a dilemma that has been inherent in its policy from the start of the war: How far can intense military and logistical support of Ukraine — effectively everything short of NATO troops on the ground — go without setting off nuclear confrontation?

“I believe the nuclear threat is a bluff but it gives Putin a means to terrify the West, and accentuate divisions about providing arms because some may now view that as too dangerous,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former French ambassador to Russia.

Hours after the speech in Moscow, President Joe Biden denounced Putin’s “overt nuclear threats” against Europe, describing them as “reckless.” Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, he said the West would be “clear, firm and unwavering” in its resolve as it confronts Putin’s “brutal, needless war” in Ukraine.

“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple,” Biden said. He continued: “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should make your blood run cold.”

Workers at a lumber company run by the Lviv Regional Department of Forestry, in Radekhiv, Ukraine, July 29, 2022. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

A game of brinkmanship has begun with the U.S. and Russian leaders seeking to outmaneuver each other as the war festers. If Ukraine and its Western backers have the advantage for now, that edge is by no means secure.

Seven months into the war, its resolution appears more distant than ever and its reverberations more dangerous. Perhaps not since the Cuban missile crisis six decades ago have U.S. and Russian leaders confronted each other so explicitly and sharply on the danger of nuclear war.

As Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has said, the United States and its Western allies have been trying to use “all means possible” to help Ukraine “without creating an uncontrollable escalation.” But the risk of that escalation, possibly the start of World War III, just grew, because what constitutes a strike “inside Russia” may now be defined differently by Putin.

Full of anger and venom, portraying Ukraine as the headquarters of neo-Nazis and the West as a giant engine of “Russophobia,” Putin appeared as deluded about the neighbor he attacked as he was in his Feb. 24 speech that announced the war.

He has downsized Russia’s military ambitions in Ukraine — upended by the Russian defeat in Kyiv and recent battlefield setbacks in the northeast — without downsizing his obsessions over Russian humiliation at the breakup of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

A Ukrainian soldier near the city of Izium, Ukraine, Sept. 17, 2022. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

On Wednesday, as in February, he accused Ukrainian authorities, falsely, of genocide against ethnic Russians. He boasted of nuclear weapons that are “more advanced” than the West’s. He made wild allegations about the threat to Russia. He alluded, for example, to “statements by some high-ranking representatives of leading NATO states about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction — nuclear weapons — against Russia.”

There is no evidence of this.

Putin “claimed he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia and no one other than Russia sought conflict,” Biden said.

The speeches came on the eve of a winter that will be hard in Europe, with inflation and energy costs rising, and days before an Italian election Sunday in which a far-right candidate, Giorgia Meloni, is the favorite. The European extreme right has generally been sympathetic to Moscow, although Meloni’s own position appears to be evolving.

Up to now, Biden has been very effective in cementing Western unity. But while the Biden administration has little apparent faith in diplomacy with Moscow at this stage, France and Germany still seek the dialogue with Russia that President Emmanuel Macron of France mentioned in his speech Tuesday to the United Nations, a dialogue judged necessary, he said, because “we seek peace.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 20, 2022.  (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Not at any price, however. Macron’s position has hardened. He presented a stark picture of a world hovering on the brink of war and brutal division as a result of Russia’s “imperial” aggression.

He said the world was close to “an enlarged era of conflict, a permanent one, where sovereignty and security will be determined by force, by the size of armies.” It was imperative, he insisted, that those remaining neutral — an apparent reference to India and China, among others — speak out.

“Those who are silent today are, despite themselves, or secretly, serving the cause of the new imperialism,” Macron said.

The Russian attempt to rebuild the imperium lost at the dissolution of the Soviet Union finds itself at a treacherous crossroads. After multiple military setbacks, Putin spoke from a weaker position than the one he held seven months ago.

“The situation is very dangerous because Putin is in a trap,” Bermann said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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