What does Putin’s speech and his “this is not a bluff” mean?
In a speech on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin announced partial integration and warned of possible Russian retaliation against Western moves. But instead of resurrecting fears of reckless nuclear blackmail, his words should be seen as encouraging rather than alarming.
The good news is that the declared emergency measures mean Putin is admitting that he is losing the war for imperial expansion. The less good news is that his grasp of reality is worse than we imagined, if it is true that he believed at least a fraction of the lies and ideas he dropped during the speech.
Russia says it plans to mobilize another 300,000 troops, raising suspicions that Putin is fully aware of the difficulties in training the small reinforcements his army currently receives.
With laws passed by the Russian parliament providing for harsh prison terms for draft dodgers, the new measures resemble a game of chairs: pre-trial detainees can be summoned to fight for refusing to take part in combat. Promised that their sentence would be cancelled.
Indeed, Putin’s controversial arguments rarely stand up to scrutiny: we are winning in Ukraine, but the Western forces arrayed against us are so strong that we now need to find additional resources to continue the fight; Our puppet governments in Ukraine will have to hold a referendum to join us, but we already know that everyone wants to join; We ourselves defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia, but for this we must add part of another country; Our military mission has never gone beyond the “liberation” of Donbas, but for this we have taken so much territory from Ukraine that our front line is 1000 kilometers.
Small changes in rhetoric
For longtime Russia analysts, the most surprising thing about Putin’s speech was how much his statements about Ukraine and the world had changed since his last major speech in February, at the start of the invasion. The central myth that the West wants to destroy Russia is now superseded by the idea that Russia is threatened by Western weapons of mass destruction. But apart from that, it seems the reality check the Russian military has endured over the past six months has done nothing to change Putin’s worldview.
In his speech, the Russian president addressed, first of all, the domestic audience, which is inclined to accept, or at least tolerate, the version of the world he presented to him. But it includes the usual half-hearted nuclear threats to provide an excuse for Western leaders who might be looking for ways to undermine support for Ukraine.
But even in this area there was a tone of desperation. “This is not nonsense,” Putin said, thereby admitting that all his previous threats to the West were empty, nuclear and non-nuclear, and that Russia’s consistent “red lines” evaporated in the face of Western determination.
The speech is a new admission that Russia has been unconquered on the battlefield and must first win elsewhere if it wants to defeat Ukraine. Putin believes the cost of reducing international support for Ukraine is worth it. It is a challenge for the West and a group of fearful Western leaders (especially those who interpret Russia’s nuclear intentions through Moscow’s propaganda rather than its doctrine) to define a more limited set of circumstances under which nuclear weapons can be used. Very useful. .
The hastily scheduled referendums in the occupied territories are another sign that Russia is looking for ways to dissuade Ukraine’s supporters from helping liberate its residents. Saying that Ukraine’s occupied territory is part of Russia would be an excuse for Moscow to denounce Russia as an attack on any attempt by Ukraine to liberate its citizens from its brutal occupation.
Of course the result of the referendum is beyond doubt. The “correct” numbers will be guaranteed by the addition of deleted votes from Russia itself, and as happened with the Crimean referendum in 2014, the options presented on the ballots are likely to contain no truly viable options.
Fear and loss of support
The reaction in Russia was fear, and rightly so. Now the effects of further mobilization are beginning to be felt, with stock market crashes leading to higher airfares and online searches for ways to leave Russia.
In addition, Putin’s speech is likely to further erode foreign support for Russia. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last week, there were implicit and explicit condemnations of Putin over the war. Turkish President Erdogan also told Putin that the captured territories should be returned to Ukraine. A process that will accelerate as more countries begin to embrace the Russian leader’s fevered dream of a failed crusade to rebuild the empire.
The West’s answer is clear: keep up the pressure by supporting Ukraine so that Russia continues to lose by keeping an eye on Moscow’s true nuclear stance, which is not advertised on TV.
Keir Giles works on the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank. Author of the book “Russia’s War Against All”. [La guerra de Rusia contra todos]
Translated by Francisco de Zarate
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