Vladimir Putin’s threatening televised speech on Wednesday was much more than an attempt to change the course of his faltering war against Ukraine. He sought to turn a war of aggression against a neighbor into one of defense of a threatened “motherland,” a theme that resonates with Russians steeped in patriotic history.
Putin, the president of Russia, aimed at nothing less than altering the meaning of war for his country, raising the stakes for the entire world. He warned the West in no uncertain terms – “this is not a bluff” – that the attempt to weaken or defeat Russia could lead to a nuclear cataclysm.
With his nuclear saber, accusing the West of wanting to “destroy” his country and ordering the call-up of 300,000 military reservists, Putin implicitly admitted that the war he started on February 24 has not gone as he wanted. He painted Ukrainians as mere pawns in the “collective Western military machine.”
By moving away from his original goal of demilitarizing and “denazifying” all of Ukraine, he made nonsense of the Kremlin’s exaggerated claims that the war was progressing according to plan, and tacitly acknowledged something he had always denied: reality. and the growing resistance of a unified Ukrainian nation.
But cornered Putin is Putin at his most dangerous. This was one of the basic lessons of his difficult youth that he learned from the furious reaction of a rat he cornered on a staircase in what was then Leningrad.
“Russia won its defensive wars against Napoleon and Hitler, and the most important thing that Putin did here from a psychological perspective was to assert that this is also a defensive war,” said Michel Eltchaninoff, the French author of “Inside Vladimir’s Mind.” Put.” “It was an aggressive war. Now it is the defense of the Russian world against the Western attempt at dismemberment.”
According to Putin’s account, this imaginary world imbued with an inalienable Russian essence has grown in size. He said Russia would support upcoming referendums in four Ukrainian regions on whether to join Russia — votes denounced by Ukraine and the West as a sham and a likely prelude to annexation.
The Kremlin has pointed out that if it absorbs that territory, Ukrainian counteroffensives underway in the east and south to retake territory occupied by Russia would be considered attacks on Russian soil, justifying any level of retaliation, including a nuclear response.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, of course we will use all means at our disposal to defend Russia and our people,” Putin said.
His speech, which of course may be a bluff despite his denial, nonetheless presented the West with a dilemma inherent in its policy since the beginning of the war: to what extent can intense support Ukraine’s military and logistics, effectively everything but NATO troops on the ground, without provoking a nuclear confrontation?
“I think the nuclear threat is a bluff, but it gives Putin a means to terrorize the West and accentuate divisions over arms supplies because some may now consider it too dangerous,” said Sylvie Bermann, a former ambassador French in Russia.
Hours after the speech in Moscow, President Joe Biden denounced Putin’s “open nuclear threats” against Europe, calling them “reckless.” Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, he said the West would be “clear, firm and unwavering” in its decision as it confronts Putin’s “brutal and unnecessary war” in Ukraine.
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple,” Biden said. He continued: “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe in, this should chill your blood.”
A game of brinkmanship has begun with US and Russian leaders seeking to one-up each other as the war escalates. If Ukraine and its Western backers have the upper hand for now, that advantage is by no means secure.
Seven months after the war, its resolution seems more distant than ever and its reverberations more dangerous. Perhaps not since the Cuban Missile Crisis six decades ago have US and Russian leaders clashed so openly and forcefully about the danger of nuclear war.
As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said, the United States and its Western allies have tried to use “all possible means” to help Ukraine “without creating an uncontrollable escalation.” But the risk of such an escalation, possibly the start of World War III, increased, because what constitutes a strike “inside Russia” may now be defined differently by Putin.
Full of anger and venom, portraying Ukraine as the seat of neo-Nazis and the West as a giant engine of “Russophobia,” Putin appeared as misled by the neighbor he attacked as in his February 24 speech announcing the war
He has scaled back Russia’s military ambitions in Ukraine, marred by Russia’s defeat in Kyiv and recent battlefield setbacks in the northeast, without diminishing its obsession with Russian humiliation in the breakup of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
On Wednesday, as in February, he falsely accused Ukrainian authorities of genocide against ethnic Russians. He boasted of nuclear weapons “more advanced” than those of the West. He made wild allegations about the threat to Russia. He alluded, for example, to “statements by some high-ranking representatives of the main NATO states about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction (nuclear weapons) against Russia.”
There is no evidence of this.
Putin “claimed he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia and no one but Russia sought conflict,” Biden said.
The speeches came on the eve of what will be a harsh winter in Europe, with inflation and energy costs rising, and days before an Italian election Sunday in which a far-right candidate, Giorgia Meloni, is the favorite The European far-right has been generally supportive of Moscow, although Meloni’s position appears to be evolving.
So far, Biden has been very effective in cementing Western unity. But while the Biden administration has little apparent faith in diplomacy with Moscow at this stage, France and Germany are still seeking the dialogue with Russia that French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned in his speech to the United Nations, a dialogue considered necessary, he said. because “we seek peace”.
Not at any cost, though. Macron’s position has hardened. It presented a stark picture of a world on the brink of war and brutal division as a result of Russia’s “imperial” aggression.
He said the world is close to “an era of extended, permanent conflict, where sovereignty and security will be determined by force, by the size of armies.” He insisted, he insisted, that those who remained neutral — an apparent reference to India and China, among others — speak out.
“Those who remain silent today are, in spite of themselves, or in secret, serving the cause of the new imperialism,” Macron said.
The Russian attempt to rebuild the empire lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union is at a treacherous crossroads. After multiple military setbacks, Putin spoke from a weaker position than he held seven months ago.
“The situation is very dangerous because Putin is in a trap,” Bermann said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.