Putin is fighting several wars simultaneously. On the one hand, a conventional war with a view to territorially and nationally destroying Ukraine. On the other, a confrontation against a significant part of Russian society. Putin’s offer is no longer more than that of a pure and simple dictatorship that does not seek to generate a broad consensus among Russians, but rather to impose an unquestioned political order and reduce the already diminished spaces for political contestation and civil liberties. And, finally, a hidden confrontation against what he calls the “Collective West” with the aspiration of reformulating the European security architecture and bringing about the advent of a long-awaited multipolar world that, he trusts, will put an end to the hegemony of the United States and the international liberal order. That is the essence of the speech that Putin offered last Friday and that predicts a military and diplomatic escalation in the coming days and weeks. Curves are coming and, above all, a war of nerves with Europe and the US.
On the Ukrainian battlefield, Russia has lost the initiative and has accumulated setbacks since the beginning of September. And neither the mobilization decreed last week nor the annexation now of four other Ukrainian provinces will be enough to reverse this dynamic. The annexation, illegal and illegitimate from any point of view, is a rush forward with the aim of intimidating the Ukrainians and, above all, the Euro-Atlantic powers. By incorporating Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Lugansk as territories of the Russian Federation, Moscow wants to make credible its threat, less and less veiled, to resort to tactical nuclear weapons. That is his trick and the card he is going to play in the coming days.
Moscow hopes that the concern of European governments and public opinion will cause fissures in support for Ukraine and in the cohesion of the Western response to the Russian invasion. With the act in the hall of San Jorge of the Kremlin and later celebration on red squarePutin intends to point out that this is an irreversible step, but also that this is enough for him to present his war in Ukraine as a victory in the eyes of public opinion. That is the hook of Putin’s diplomatic move and that is why he now insists on his willingness to reach a ceasefire and sit down to negotiate. In other words, Putin quickly needs a way out that he does not have, and he trusts the Europeans to provide it. And he knows that, for that, he needs to increase his fear of him.
The nuclear threat is thus real, but not yet the most likely scenario. Although counterintuitive to many, a tactical nuclear weapon – that is, a low-power weapon – may not be decisive in the Ukrainian theater and its use entails dilemmas and risks for Moscow. So it’s not a lucky infallible ace up the Kremlin’s sleeve, but of a resource that it will agitate more or less depending on the response it perceives among the Euro-Atlantic allies. In this way, the more alarmist the European public and political debate, the greater incentive the Kremlin will find to stir up the nuclear scarecrow. Similarly, if the strategic communication of the West, that of the US in particular, is not robust enough – for example, if it is made explicit that in no case will a symmetrical response be given – the deterrence will be lower and the probability of its use by the Kremlin.
Putin’s plan is worrying because its chances of success rest on a permanent climb and flight forward. With this latest annexation, Moscow has closed the door to any other solution other than recognition of its conquests, which, beyond international legality, is problematic because it does not even control all the territories it claims as its own. With the fall of Limán, at the very moment of writing these lines, we will see what else the Kremlin has on the menu, if anything, in the face of the adverse reality on the ground.
Ukraine has no incentive to stop its counteroffensive now. Their only guarantee of peace and survival is to defeat Russia and regain control of their entire national territory, and that includes Crimea, back on the agenda. Seen from kyiv, Putin’s speech cannot be reassuring and his offer of a truce is nothing more than a trap and a mere tactical pause. With his appeal to Great Russia and his historical destiny, Putin implicitly reconfirms that Mikolaiv, Odessa and ultimately kyiv remain in his crosshairs. What Russia has been explicitly disputing for eight years is the right of Ukraine and Ukrainians to exist as a national identity away from the tutelage of Moscow. And that has not changed. On the contrary, the messianic tone of Putin’s speech augurs even more difficult times.
Neither the tone nor the content of the speech are new, but the sharpening of the eschatological and conspiratorial edges is striking. It may surprise the unfamiliar, but it reflects the prevailing thinking in the Kremlin ecosystem in the last decade. Although the European Union and its main member states chose to ignore this drift, the truth is that the kremlin is on a war footingAt least since December 2011 when a first wave of demonstrations took place in Moscow against Putin and the United Russia party. Since then, Putin and his intelligence services have given ample evidence that they are genuinely convinced that Russia faces an existential threat. That’s where the besieged fortress mentality stems from and all the Russian activity hostile to western democracies executed below its threshold of detection, response or understanding, or what is the same, the entire panoply of hybrid threats in the gray zone.
In his speech, Putin appealed to those in Europe and the United States who “think like us.” A wink with which he seeks to seduce those who believe that the Kremlin represents a kind of bastion of traditional values or Soviet anti-fascismdepending on which audience you are targeting. The great ability of the Kremlin is precisely to successfully appeal to both sides of the political spectrum and hence its apparently strange traveling companions from radical Bolivarianism to the populist right.
Thus, like a good judoka, Putin tries to use the strength of the adversary – his freedoms and political pluralism – against himself. The Kremlin’s propaganda – with its appeals to the looming energy and economic apocalypse for Europe – is crystal clear on this. The ultimate objective is not to help those fellow travelers with their domestic agendas, but to contribute to the polarization and thus the strategic paralysis of those he conceives as adversaries. When Moscow appeals to a sovereign Europe (read, without NATO) knows that in the absence of the security umbrella provided by the US, Europe would be left unprotected and without any deterrence capacity against Russia and its appetites for geopolitical domination.
The Global South
Somewhat confusingly, Putin mixed these potential supports in the West with his rhetoric aimed at the so-called Global South – Latin America, Africa, Asia – by referring to them as “an essentially emancipatory and anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony” (read USA). USA). Putin gives all of this such decisive relevance that “it will determine our [de Rusia] future geopolitical reality. In that key, a good part of the upcoming game will be played and that covers, as we see, diverse planes and a global scale. And the truth is that, in that Global South, Russia manages to galvanize support and its string of grievances from a perfidious West against a poor naive Russia resonates strongly with many audiences.
The concern shown by China and India in recent weeks is a reflection of the fact that both, although for different reasons, perceive a defeat and potential collapse of Russia as a serious risk and hence their calls for a speedy negotiation in and on Ukraine. In other words, even if they are not going to de jure support the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories, that does not mean that de facto they are going to reposition themselves in favor of kyiv or the West. Europe and the US will therefore have to navigate this situation with tactical astuteness and strategic vision with a view to avoiding the possible war conflagration that hangs over the European continental space.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism