TWENTY-TWO years ago, at the Davos World Economic Forum, when a little-known Vladimir Putin had just become president, I asked four senior Russian leaders: “Who is Mr Putin?”
Seated in a row on stage, all four refused to answer, apparently fearful of their new boss. The audience burst out laughing. Russian TV, in the front row, filmed the whole episode and ran it repeatedly – for years. “Who is Mr Putin?” became a meme that has endured until the present.
Now, as Putin threatens (again) to use nukes to rescue his failed war in Ukraine, his psyche is once more being dissected. Is he bluffing? Is he mad? Can he be enticed to negotiations?
These are the wrong questions. Vladimir Putin is a bully who only stops when confronted. He has made clear that he is a danger to Europe, the United States and the world – not just Ukraine.
Now is the historic moment, when Putin is reeling from a string of Ukrainian military successes, to take advantage of his weakness. At long last, the West must give Kyiv the critical weapons it needs to push Russian troops out of Ukraine.
Putin’s Sept 21 speech – in which he called for a “partial” military mobilisation of 300,000 soldiers and hinted that Russia might use nuclear weapons – was a clear sign of weakness. Ukraine’s advances in the north of the country led to the collapse of the ill-equipped, poorly led Russian occupation troops, and his call-up won’t rejuvenate his troubled army.
“There is almost no chance they will get anywhere close to 300,000, because nobody wants to do it,” I was told by Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the United States Army Europe, by phone from Romania.
“It will be months before any of these guys show up, never mind get trained,” Hodges added, especially since Russia is running short of uniforms, supplies – and capable commanders. And fears of the call-up are already generating social unrest in big cities.
Knowing this, Putin has trotted out his veiled nuclear threat, stating that, if any nation jeopardises “the territorial integrity of our country... we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”
Yet Putin and his circle have made nuclear threats frequently in recent years – and they have always been a bluff. “They typically back down if you ignore them or you make a very clear response,” said Hodges.
The reason that Putin’s use of tactical nukes is highly unlikely is that it won’t gain the Russians any military advantage.
“There is zero strategic upside,” Hodges explained. Putin is not going to start a strategic nuclear war with Nato, which would destroy him. As for using tactical nuclear weapons (which have a much smaller yield), Hodges noted that they wouldn’t do as much damage as Moscow’s conventional missiles have done to major Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol.
But their use would provoke a global outcry against breaking the nuclear taboo that has existed since 1945, forcing even China and India to condemn Putin. “It would be impossible for the United States not to respond, and the response would be devastating,” said Hodges.
President Joe Biden told 60 Minutes last Sunday that the US response would be “consequential.” One hopes private White House messages to Putin make clear that Biden’s retort is not a bluff.
Of course, many observers wonder if that response to any Russian escalation would be nuclear. But the US has many non-nuclear options – from so-called bunker busters to cyber counterattacks – to seriously punish such a strike. Their extent should be made clear to Moscow.
“Of course, good people worry (about the nuclear threat),” Hodges said, “but if we give in to Putin’s blackmail there is no end to this. Where does it stop?” Such threats could be used against small Nato countries. China and North Korea are also watching how the West responds to Putin’s nuclear threats.
Which brings us to the pipe dream of peace talks, a frequent proposal by those who fear a Putin who runs “crazy.” The Russian leader has so far rejected peace talks (despite lies to the contrary), and would only use them to regroup his military. Putin has said Ukraine has no right to exist and is preparing to annex occupied Ukrainian lands via rigged referendums, which stared on Friday.
So there is no possibility of serious talks before Russia is forced to give up most or all of the lands it has annexed. Indeed, the administration should stop talking about “strengthening Ukraine’s hand” at the negotiating table.
On the contrary, this is the moment, when Putin is on the back foot, that the West must expedite delivery of the weapons systems Ukraine needs to win this conflict.
“Yes, we have a few HIMARs” – the precision multiple rocket launchers sent recently by Washington, that have enabled the Ukrainians to knock out Russian logistics and command centers – I was told via WhatsApp by Brig. Gen. “Marcel” Melnik, commander of the Ukrainian Army’s Kharkiv garrison, as he drove around newly liberated towns last week. “But if we would have more HIMARS, along with air defense systems, and armored cars, we can win.”
There is no reason for the US and its allies to keep denying the Ukrainians the air defenses, long-range missiles, tanks and planes that could defeat Putin. It is critical to deliver them now, before winter sets in, before Russia mobilises, before Putin bombs every bit of civilian infrastructure left in Ukraine.
Let’s stop letting fear of “mad” Putin’s nukes spook us. Get off the stick, Biden administration (which has done much right, but is still holding back key weapons systems)! Put your weapons where your mouths are, France and Germany! Now is the moment to help Kyiv push Putin’s army out of Ukraine. – The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS