Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that the abject failure of his “special military operation” in Ukraine now represents the greatest threat he has ever faced to his own regime security.
The Department of Defense estimates that over 80,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in a war, which Putin said would last days but is now in its seventh month. Ukraine’s blistering counteroffensive in Kharkiv, which featured crossing the strategic Oskil river, has cornered Putin.
Putin has been forced to rely on North Korea for artillery and Iran for drones. The Kremlin has reportedly sent prisoners from Russian jails as well as mercenaries from Chechnya and the Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine.
Putin has long since suppressed liberal, democratic forces in Russia. But he’s on the hook to explain to ultra nationalist Russian hawks why the Kremlin failed to topple a government Putin nonsensically claimed was a Nazi existential threat to the motherland.
Fearing Ukrainian forces have the potential to fulfill President Zelenskyy’s mission of liberating Crimea and Donbas, Putin announced a mobilization for the first time since World War II. He also dangerously escalated bellicose threats including to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory.
Putin’s plans to annex four regions of Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhia) because the Kremlin can avoid losing to Ukraine only by framing the Kremlin’s brutal war of aggression as a defensive war on Russian territory.
Putin is pursuing this strategy of brinkmanship because he has run out of other options and fervently believes he can deter the U.S. and NATO from providing Ukraine with the diplomatic support and weaponry Ukraine needs to recapture its rightful territory.
“This is not a bluff,” Putin claimed.
Putin knows that his prior threats to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory were attacked have deterred the Biden administration from providing long range artillery, enforcing a no-fly zone, and supporting Poland’s offer to supply Ukraine with MiG fighter aircraft.
Speaking at the U.N. this week, President Biden emphasized the U.S. commitment to support democracies around the world. Sitting squarely on the geopolitical fault line between Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy and democracy, Ukraine is in desperate need of three lines of U.S. support.
First, from the onset of Putin’s military buildup even before the Kremlin launched its barbaric war of aggression, the Biden administration has sought to own the narrative, including by declassifying intelligence about Russia’s nefarious plans and intentions.
Now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his team must vociferously expose Putin’s duplicitous tactics.
Whatever Putin wishes to call those four regions Russia plans to annex illegally, they were and will always remain Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has every right to fight for them with NATO’s material support.
Second, now is not the time as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously counseled President George H. W. Bush on the eve of the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, to “go wobbly.” The U.S. and NATO must continue to serve as the arsenal of democracy and ensure Ukraine’s brave soldiers have the weapons needed to carry on their righteous fight.
Third, the U.S. must use back channel communication with the widest spectrum of Russian officials to emphasize Russia’s use nuclear weapons would invoke NATO Article 5. And the U.S. intelligence community needs to report on Russia’s military command and control and assess with the greatest precision and alacrity, whether his own chain of command would follow an order to launch tactical nuclear weapons if Putin indeed seeks this Pyrrhic victory.
The U.S. and its NATO allies must demonstrate to Putin their resolve to call the Kremlin’s bluff and resist snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Ukraine’s sovereignty and the cause of democracy, which the Biden administration has emphasized is so central to its foreign policy, are hanging in the balance.