Commentary. What is scary about Putin is not just the nuclear threat, but the messianic role as an engine of history with which he feels invested.

Putin’s dangerous ‘bluff’

It is time to start taking everything seriously. In 2003, the U.S. and U.K. attacked Saddam Hussein based on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that were never found. Now the West is finding them somewhere where they were already known to be.

Putin cornered is a scary prospect. In what kind of a world do we think we’re living in Europe? In a walled-off garden where it’s always others who die while we wage wars, directly or by proxy – from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Syria to Libya, which we also seem to never win?

The only thing that is certain is that Putin is not Saddam, who was then leading a country militarily and economically on its knees after years of sanctions. The Kremlin leader, albeit in bad enough shape to have to order a partial mobilization, wants to be taken seriously, both outside and inside Russia – perhaps inside more than anything, in a country where it’s not as much the street protests, but the secret machinations in the palaces of power that might lead to change. Putin needs to close ranks and forestall criticism from ultranationalists who are accusing him of being too “soft.”

That was why the nuclear boogeyman was brought up by Medvedev on Thursday: perhaps in the form of the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, or a Chernobyl-type disaster, since the trail of massacres that the Russians are leaving behind them in Ukraine is not enough. After failing to win with the resources and men fielded so far, Putin’s troops are leaving scorched earth behind; that is, they’re raising the already immense costs of future reconstruction, human, moral and material.

The truth is that we are facing a tragedy with one man in charge, and we don’t know whether this is the final act or the beginning of another drama. It’s strange that at this point, no one or hardly anyone still remembers how the invasion of Ukraine began. Months of military amassment on Ukraine’s borders since the spring of 2021 had passed with most observers not believing that Moscow would go to war: only in the last moments did the U.S. raise the alarm, backed not only by satellite imagery but perhaps also by some well-informed inside sources who already knew about, or feared, the gamble Russia was preparing to make.

No one or hardly anyone still remembers how the war began. Three days before the invasion of Ukraine, on February 21, Putin convened a meeting of the Security Council (of which Medvedev is the deputy chairman), broadcast on live TV: regime dignitaries were called up like schoolchildren to speak one by one and wholeheartedly endorse Moscow’s recognition of the two Donbass republics. Only one flubbed his line: the head of foreign intelligence, Naryshkin, who perhaps intentionally misunderstood and spoke of “annexation” of Donetsk and Luhansk, but was promptly corrected by the leader who scolded him harshly. Now, Putin has had to change policy, launching the process of annexation and mock referendums in occupied Ukrainian regions. How many miscalculations has this man made, trying to explain to the world that Russian and Ukrainian soldiers were supposedly “brothers in arms and would never be on opposite sides”?

What is scary about Putin is not just the nuclear threat, but the messianic role as an engine of history with which he feels invested. “This is not a bluff,” Putin said in his latest speech, rebuked on Thursday at the UN by Biden for “irresponsible disregard of nonproliferation commitments.” The truth is that bluffing has been part of nuclear deterrence since the Cold War era between the United States and the Soviet Union. You don’t attack an enemy with a nuke if you think they can destroy you too. There is inevitably a part in this calculation that can be called a “bluff,” because no one can be sure of anything.

But when in doubt, it’s better to be cautious. For more than 60 years, the world has lived with this ambiguity that avoided fatal escalations. As Tommaso Di Francesco wrote yesterday in il manifesto, “nuclear weapons, between one clash and another, seem like a rhetorical provocation, but this time they’re alluding to a concrete threat.” China and the SCO countries which met recently in Samarkand, and which are watching us from a distance, know this very well: even more than Putin’s atomic bombs, the Chinese fear the economic consequences of the conflict among the Europeans, who remain China’s biggest customers, together with the Americans.

The threats don’t do much to frighten Western leaders, who know that there has been no change in the deployment of Russia’s nuclear arsenal since February. Instead, Putin’s nuclear threats aim to strike fear among the European public, already very worried. The Kremlin leader is banking on this to reduce military and economic support for Ukraine.

Europe is moving from growth to recession, China is not doing as well as before, and Powell’s Federal Reserve with its rate hike is keeping down the stock markets and American optimism. Anger over high utility bills, possible gas rationing, and rising inflation are perhaps the most powerful weapons Moscow has at its disposal. That, indeed, is not a “bluff,” but the painful reality we are glimpsing in the winter of our discontent.

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