The world has not forgotten the ironclad face and raunchy warmongering that Vladimir Putin provoked in late February when, prior to his illegal invasion of Ukraine, he railed against what he claimed to be the existential threat Mother Russia posed by the West. It was a speech intended to rally Russians around the false cause of liberating Ukraine from “neo-Nazis” and warning the West of the consequences of interference.
Everyone now knows how badly Putin’s dashing move failed.
He underestimated Ukraine’s will to defend itself, and its ability to turn that determination into victory after victory on the battlefield.
Ukrainian forces have reversed Putin’s all-out bid to take the capital Kiev at the start of the war, and more recently have driven Russian troops and tanks from the Kharkov region of the country’s northeast.
On Wednesday, the world was again subjected to Putin’s brutal delivery of lies and threats, when the Kremlin leader announced a call for 300,000 Russian reservists. This time, however, he dangled the ability to reach into his vast stockpile of nuclear weapons to accomplish his goals. “We will use all the resources we have,” Putin sternly warned. “And I’m not bluffing.”
Putin’s insistence on being taken at his word could indeed be just a bluff, as some analysts argue. Or, cornered and on the losing side of a conflict for which he is entirely to blame, he may now see the use of nuclear weapons as a viable option.
The West has learned to never underestimate Putin. After all, he has kept a country with a smaller economy than Canada at the forefront of global politics by skillfully using the tools at his disposal: energy as a political cudgel, assassinations, cyber offensives and proxy wars, to just to name a few.
So, what should the West take away from Putin’s final fist-shaking?
Putin’s speech revealed a leader who must be seen as dangerous, but equally desperate. He tried to sound defiant and strong, especially to the audience that matters most to him: Russia’s 145 million people. But Russians who had largely expressed indifference to the conflict because it hadn’t touched their lives now are deeply tied to it, as able-bodied men from all corners of Russian society — not just reservists — are vulnerable to being sent to the Donbas. .
The reaction of the Russians can hardly be the reaction that Putin wanted. Instead of heeding their leader’s call to mobilize, Russian men flee in every possible way, go to airports with backpacks and suitcases, or get into cars and drive to the border. Flight costs from Moscow skyrocketed as Russian men mainly targeted any country that would let them in without a visa.
No one can blame the Russians for seeing Putin’s call not as a reason to rally, but as the act of a leader with his back against the wall.
That’s how the West should see it.
Rather than shy away from Putin’s bombast and treat him with velvet gloves, President Joe Biden and every other Western leader should double down and step up the military support that has helped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his troops turn the tide against the Putin’s illegal, devastating invasion.
Putin’s desperation should also bolster NATO countries’ determination to jointly confront the Kremlin’s likely shutdown of Russian natural gas and oil to Europe for the winter. It will mean sacrifice and economic hardship, perhaps even a recession. But it is not Putin who has the upper hand, it is the West and Ukraine in power.
At some point, diplomacy will take the stage and negotiations for peace will begin. But that time is not now, not as Putin escalates, not just with a massive troop build-up, but with mock referendums in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that will lead to the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of even more Ukrainian territory.
For Putin, however, Ukraine is not just land grabbing. It is a template that, if successful, could be applied elsewhere, even in Poland, Romania, the Baltic States and the rest of NATO’s eastern flank. And as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council on Thursday, protecting Ukraine from Putin’s militancy is also about “protecting an international order where no country can forcibly redraw another’s borders.” . If we don’t defend this principle when the Kremlin is so blatantly violating it, we’ll be sending a message to aggressors everywhere that they can ignore it too.”
Putin is betting that his story, while patently false, will spark enough patriotic fervor among Russians to reverse the momentum of the war against Ukraine and the West — though protests across the country on Wednesday suggest many Russians are cutting through the artifice of their leader look.
Putin also bets that his veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons will intimidate the Biden and Western governments into acquiescing. He is counting on the US and Europe to see him as a force to be feared.
Instead, however, the West must treat him as a desperate, flawed leader who, unless he changes course quickly, will see himself played out.
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