Vladimir Putin is isolated more than ever. In recent days, world opinion and his allies, have turned against his war.

He’s losing, he knows it, and doubles down. Despite criticism by “allies” China, India, and Turkey days before, he announced he’ll recruit 300,000 more soldiers, threatened nuclear war, and continued plans to stage sham referendums this weekend (Sep. 23-27) in four Ukrainian regions to “legitimize” their annexation.

Obviously, his “special military operation” to de-nazify Ukraine is failing so he escalates and re-crafts a narrative that the issue now is that Russia faces a monumental existential threat by NATO that may lead to nuclear war. This is an attempt to switch from offence to defence — a strategic sleight-of-hand that is insulting to the world, to Ukrainians, and to thinking Russians.

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Ukraine continues to succeed in the battlefield and hopes that China or Turkey will mediate a ceasefire and act as “security guarantors” for a truce. “A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment,” he told the UN “for the death and destruction that Russia provoked with its illegal war”.

This week, the world has become at once more dangerous and less so. Putin’s need for more troops amounts to an admission of failure and therefore a strong signal that a deal is possible. But his thinly veiled nuclear threat has also raised the stakes and, unless there are backchannels in place to negotiate, indicates that his war will continue throughout Winter in the hopes that the West relents. Putin’s move for more troops placates hardliners in his country but also signals to his public, as well as the world, that Russia’s “special military operation” is a flop and morphing in to full-blown war.

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He’s on the ropes. Geopolitically, Putin is left with only two allies, North Korea and Iran, which are also pariah nations. His economy is being strangled by sanctions and voluntary boycotts by countries, companies, and individuals who are repulsed by his regime’s atrocities. And his latest hint about nuclear war is toothless, and not a full-throated direct, and may backfire.

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Further, his deployment of 300,000 more troops will be inconsequential. It will take months to happen, they will be even less effective than the battle-hardened mercenaries now on the battlefield, and thousands flee conscription already.

The only certainty is that next week Putin will announce the results of his sham elections and declare that voters overwhelmingly chose to have their Ukrainian regions annexed to Russia. This fraud is designed to advance his we-are-defending-ourselves-against-NATO fiction, but has already been pre-emptively de-legitimized by the United Nations. There are no independent, international observers at these polls, nor were there in Crimea, and the residents of these regions have either fled or will be forced to vote at gunpoint. Besides, Ukraine’s “Yellow Ribbon” resistance has obstructed voting officials for weeks by assassinating them or firebombing polling facilities. Unfortunately, sabotage by insurgents won’t affect the outcome because Putin has already decided to annex.

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Don’t vote Yellow Ribbon resistance plants reminders and bombs.

The world is certainly roiled by recent and dramatic developments – from the distancing by China and India away from Putin’s war to his latest nuclear bombshell. All raise questions as to the duration of the war, its effects on the global economy and geopolitics, and Putin’s tenure. Garry Kasparov, chess champion and Putin political opponent, warned two weeks ago in an interview with The Kyiv Post, that losses won’t force Putin to give up on the war.

“Basically, the war is lost,” declared Kasparov. “All of the objectives that Putin declared … all of them failed. Continuing the war is the only way for Putin to stay in power and to create extra chaos in the free world, and hoping that maybe winter could offer him new opportunities. It’s a desperate attempt to protract the agony. Putin’s desperate attempts to stay afloat will put thousands and thousands of people — both in the frontline and innocent civilians — into graves in the months to come before Ukraine is … liberated.”

President Joe Biden has stayed the course with his World War II-style lend-lease largess to Ukraine. In recent days, in anticipation of Putin playing the nuclear card, he began giving interviews and statements that cautioned against any major (i.e. nuclear) escalation. In his speech on September 21 before the United Nations’ General Assembly, he stated bluntly the unwavering position of the Western alliance: “This is a war chosen by one man, a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council who invaded its neighbor and attempted to erase its sovereignty from the map. There is a prohibition against taking a country by force. Today, he made overt nuclear threats against Europe in a reckless disregard of the [nuclear] non-proliferation regime. Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened, but no one threatened Russia. No one saw conflict except Russia. We warned it was coming and tried to avert it. Putin’s true purpose is unmistakable which was that Ukraine was created by Russia and never had real statehood,” he said. “This is a war chosen by one man that violates the tenets of the United Nations’ Charter.”

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told the UN General Assembly that Russia must be removed from the Security Council for its crimes, and be forced to pay Ukraine for its misdeed. He has, and increasing numbers of allies, been calling for Russia to be suspended completely from the UN for its clear-cut abrogation of the Charter and international law. Others believe that Russia must be declared a Terrorist State. But on these and other remedies, the big question mark remains China. Would it veto or agree or stay on the sidelines as it has done publicly since the February 24 invasion.

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When asked to comment on Putin’s remarks [activation of 300,000 more troops], the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, reiterated that Beijing has been “‘consistently clear on its position and again called for a ceasefire through negotiation and solutions that answer all parties’ security concerns’,” reported The South China Morning Post. “‘We always maintain that the sovereign and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected, the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations should be observed, the legitimate security concerns of all countries should be taken seriously, and all efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully should be supported’,”

Last week, these concerns were given to Putin behind closed doors by China’s President Xi Jinping, but he dismisses them. Also rebuffed were remarks made this week by President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said publicly that the invasion was illegal, lands should be returned including Crimea, and that Putin wanted to end, and would end, the war soon. On Sep. 20, he spoke about finding a “dignified way out for both sides” and added that “if peace is going to be established in Ukraine, of course, returning the land that was invaded will become important,” he said. Like China, his country has not recognized the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Finally, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi openly called upon Putin to end his war immediately and has been brushed away by these latest chess moves in Moscow.

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India’s Modi blasts Putin directly about his unacceptable war.

The latest turn of events puts new pressure on the world. These three “allies” must stop buying energy from Russia because it finances his war machine. They must also pull their weight diplomatically and help find an “exit ramp” for Putin and Ukraine that does not currently exist and which includes the return of Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine as well as iron-clad security guarantees against Russia or others. The illegal annexations by Russia also raise “significant” issues going forward. The Kremlin, through former President and hawk Dmitry Medvedev, has stated that it’s irrelevant whether other countries recognize these votes (claimed to represent the will of the people to join Russia). Once annexation is approved by the Duma, any further military action by Ukraine in those regions will be seen as an attack on Russia itself, possibly justifying any military response including a nuclear one. “Encroaching on the territory of Russia is a crime, the commission of which allows you to use all the forces of self-defence,” said Medvedev.

So what does this mean if Ukraine continues its struggle in these regions? Why would Ukraine ever agree to allowing Russia to permanently annex these conquered territories in any deal? And how likely is a nuclear attack? Nuclear expert Matt Kroenig, Acting Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said an attack will only occur if Putin is “facing the real, imminent prospect of losing the war” in order to “turn the tide of the battle”. He added that the U.S. should “take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously” but remain calm and stay the course by “doubling down to win the war”. To justify this brinkmanship, he asks: “Why hasn’t Putin used nuclear weapons already? He’s been deterred by fear of a US and a NATO response. They should build on those fears and reinforce their deterrent threats.”

Biden’s warning of “severe consequences” and his statement “don’t, don’t, don’t” are designed to highlight America’s commitment to deterrence. But what if the worst happens? Kroenig says the United States should carry out a “limited conventional [non-nuclear] military strike on the Russian forces that launched the attack” and keep helping Ukraine. And what happens if Russia deploys a tactical nuke? The answer is obvious to everyone which is that Putin will destroy his relationship with his traditional “allies” such as China, India, non-aligned nations, and the West permanently. He will become another “hermit kingdom” like North Korea with 11 time zones until its center no longer holds and it atomizes into secessionist movements.

A friend and colleague, John Herbst, who is Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, defines Putin’s nuclear reference differently than most. “Putin only implies, but does not explicitly state, that nuclear weapons will be used if Ukraine continues to attack Russian forces on Ukrainian land” after the Kremlin claims it as being part of Russia. He adds that the Ukrainian military has already attacked Russian-annexed Crimea in this war and “yet we have seen no mushroom cloud”.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Diane Francis Newsletter on America and the World,  https://dianefrancis.substack.com/about

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post

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