Humiliated Russian President Vladimir Putin doubles down on war.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s language on Wednesday was paranoid, extreme, threatening, and nearly deranged. 

By Greg Sheridan

Vladimir Putin has doubled down on war. The humiliated dictator, who normally projects macho swagger and extravagant braggadocio, has been out-fought, out-manoeuvred and out-thought by his Ukrainian enemies.

Now, faced with the consequences of a completely unjust and unnecessary war, he has not looked for an off-ramp. He is ­betting the house on more ­violence, more war.

In a militant address, mysteriously delayed for a day, he announced a partial mobilisation of Russian society for war; he threatened the use of nuclear weapons; he told his countrymen that Russia was in conflict with the West, which was out to destroy Russia itself; and he announced he would “abide by” by referendums Moscow is organising in captured Ukraine territory that will express a desire for these territories to become part of Russia itself.

Short of firing off nuclear weapons, this is almost the maximum escalation Putin could go for. His language was paranoid, extreme, threatening, nearly deranged – in other words, vintage Putin.

Putin is a man under immense pressure, a dictator experiencing the bitter moment that comes to most autocrats when reality refuses to bend to his will. He has experienced unaccustomed military and political defeat and is under as much pressure at home as he has ever been. He plainly believes that he cannot contemplate defeat, for defeat could well lead to his death, as it has for so many dictators in the past. So he once more re­defined the core purpose of his invasion. This time, he said the invasion was to “liberate the whole of Donbas”, a giant region in eastern Ukraine, from the “neo-Nazis” he claims rule in Ukraine.

As he already controls a good portion of Donbas, this, from Putin’s point of view, is at least conceivably achievable.

The performance of the Russian military in Ukraine has been exceptionally incompetent, very bad at logistics, very weak non-commissioned officers, no tactical flexibility, undisciplined savagery towards civilians. But that is the way the Russian military has often been. We were misled into thinking Putin had modernised and reformed his military.

Russia has a long history of starting big wars badly and yet prevailing in the end, not least because of an ability to absorb enormous losses, for the national leadership to accept long-term suffering among Russian soldiers and civilians. Historically, it specialises in the ­“attrition” part of wars of attrition.

Putin’s isolation was evident just days ago at the Shanghai Cooperation Conference. India’s Narendra Modi was the most explicit of Russia’s old friends, telling Putin that this was not the time for war. Putin has ignored all that advice. The Russian government has now authorised a “partial” mobilisation of 300,000 reservists. The emphasis will be on those who have already served in the armed forces, but Putin made it clear that if more soldiers were needed, yet more people would be mobilised.

Recently, Moscow has resorted to sending prisoners from its jails into battle, as well as Chechens, mercenaries and any odd volunteers, often with little or no military training.

Putin was apparently reluctant to mobilise more widely because he didn’t want the Russian people to become resentful about major dislocations in their regular lives. Now he will impose that dislocation, and justify it with paranoia and extreme nationalism, rather than contemplate defeat.

Putin again made explicit nuclear threats. Russian military doctrine has long held it would use nuclear weapons if it faced defeat on its own territory at the hands of NATO or Western forces.

After Putin formally annexes the territories in Luhansk and Donetsk, which will inevitably ‘vote’ to join Russia, he can claim, falsely of course, that attacks on those territories are attacks on Russia itself and this could justify, in his eyes at least, the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Putin would be mad to do this, as it would render him completely isolated internationally, but history is full of dictators doing mad things.

His pressure domestically has come from two directions – those who hate the war, and those who think Putin has not waged it ­viciously enough. It may be that Putin ultimately will want a cease- fire in which he keeps much or most of the Donbas. The Ukrainians may not accept that.

With newly liberated Ukrainian territory disclosing information of shocking Russian human rights abuses and systematic torture, it nonetheless is clear that in the near future, this ferocious war is set only to intensify.

That is the Putin option.


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