Fear is the natural response to a direct threat of nuclear Armageddon. At least that’s Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bet. He would have Ukraine surrender in fear by making us believe that he is prepared to die in an unwinnable nuclear war just to spite Ukraine and the “collective West.” But his whole life and all his recent actions betray this as nothing more than another bluff.
Putin wants a win for, and the survival of, his regime. While nothing more than a thug, he imagines himself as the savior of Russia with a unique “historic destiny.” He is accustomed to a life of luxury and power. His self-interest is self-evident. A martyr he is not.
Much like him, the rest of the Kremlin comprises thieves and liars all too accustomed to their unearned and undeserved wealthy lifestyles, sans, perhaps, illusions of glory and grand legacy. They are not a suicidal bunch, but they are players, and they are playing to win.
Over the past week, dozens, if not hundreds, of smart people published articles that acknowledged Putin’s nuclear threat as at least somewhat credible and, even as they dismissed it as an unlikely event, hedged by claiming that Putin’s mind is impossible to know. Is that so? We have observed him and his actions for over 20 years. And we are paying close attention to everything going on now.
Putin and the Kremlin still see a path to victory in Ukraine. At a minimum, Putin would define that victory as a ceasefire, with Russian forces occupying much of the east and south of Ukrainian lands. With the Ukrainian economy and infrastructure in a shambles, he could sell this outcome domestically.
By now he surely recognizes that, as long as Ukraine is supported by the West, he cannot win on the battlefield. If he thought otherwise, his tactics would show it. He would deliberately and diligently recruit, train and supply new armed units. He would regroup. He would also cease the attack on Bakhmut, which no longer serves any strategic purpose. Instead, the continued siege of Bakhmut is a decision driven by desperation for some semblance of progress – it’s the only town where the Russian army currently has any chance of victory.
Putin has no illusions about his ability to win on the battlefield. So what’s he to do? He needs but two things to win this war: first, Ukraine standing alone; and second, control over and stability in Russia while he’s patiently waiting for Ukraine’s Western allies to withdraw their support.
It is not unreasonable for the Kremlin to assume that, over time, support for Ukraine will waver and wane. Europe will grow sick of a cold winter and a steep recession; Poland of the millions of Ukrainian refugees; the U.K. and U.S. of the massive expense.
Politicians will change and the Russian propaganda machine will help the right leaders ascend and the wrong ones depart or lose influence. Finally, Americans, not known for their patience, will lose interest and move on to other priorities (there’s evidence of this happening already).
The Kremlin is betting that as long as they can keep the Ukrainian army more or less static, victory will just be a matter of time.
The real purpose of mobilization and the sham referenda
Russian mobilization seems counterproductive and poorly conceived only if one assumes its intent is to turn the tide of war. Its intent is simply different. Mobilization means to slow down the Ukrainian advance long enough for the cold weather to set in and then for Western support to weaken. Once we change how we perceive the Kremlin’s aims, it makes sense why hundreds of thousands of ill-equipped and untrained recruits are getting one-way rides to the frontlines.
Incidentally, mobilization is also helping Putin maintain control over Russia, in spite of recent social unrest, which he is likely still able to quash if and when necessary. After all, the millions of “siloviki” whose mandate is to maintain control over Russia have mostly been spared from this war.
The Kremlin is also systematically recruiting men from minority groups and parts of the country most likely to cause social unrest or pursue separatist goals in the long term. More broadly, the Kremlin’s policies are driving the best and brightest out of the country, gutting any hope of a liberal uprising. Most cynically of all, he is forcing Ukrainians in occupied territories into illegal military service, pitting them against their own people and reducing potential sources of opposition in these regions.
Meanwhile, the sham referenda have been theater for domestic audiences, not for the West. Putin has no illusions about anybody outside of Russia taking these seriously, and frankly, he doesn’t care what the world thinks. However, inside Russia, even this veneer of legitimacy and due process provides an excuse for mobilization (and eventually, rest assured, martial law) as it portrays this war of aggression as a great patriotic struggle to defend the motherland.
Putin’s monopoly over the media will ensure that the majority of Russians are convinced of this, granting him the license to send their sons and husbands to almost certain death and buying him the time he needs to outlast Western resolve.
Empty nuclear threat
Finally, turning to talk of a possible nuclear attack, it might appear as a threat towards Ukraine at the least and the whole world in broader theoretical terms. In reality, just like the sham referenda, these threats are mostly intended for domestic consumption.
As someone who intends to win this war, Putin does not feel like a cornered animal, despite what many Western observers may claim. He does not behave like one and would personally erase any suggestion that he is a wounded or a cornered beast, especially domestically. Yet, somehow with respect to this one narrative – the nuclear threat – the Kremlin has managed to convince the West that Putin is crazy and desperate. That’s a bluff and one that under even a minimal degree of contemplation is obvious.
The benefits of this bluff are also obvious. At a minimum, it can cause Western populations and policy makers to pause and get distracted. Maybe it can even get some European leaders to put pressure on Ukraine to consider a cease fire.
Here’s the best part – it doesn’t matter to Putin whether the West calls this bluff. The primary goal of this nuclear threat has already been fulfilled – it has drowned out the news of real, tangible and continuing Ukrainian victories on the battlefield. It’s a distraction that is doing wonders to remind Russians of their might and demonstrate that Putin is still the leader they should follow. Outside of Russia, we should call this bluff and move on.
Let’s notice and celebrate Ukrainian victories. Let’s make sure Putin knows that Ukraine does not stand alone and that we, people of the world, will not waiver. Let’s not give in to fear. Let’s hit Putin and his company of thugs where it hurts – on the battlefield.
Calling this bluff means the world provides Ukraine with more support, both economic and military. That is what Ukraine needs and that is what Putin fears the most.
Will Brackenheimer is a native of Kyiv and spent most of his adult years living in the U.S. He holds an MBA from the Yale School of Management and has been an investment banker for the past 14 years.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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