Editorials

Armageddon might be delayed, but the catastrophe is still forthcoming

An activist from IPPNW Germany and ICAN Germany wears a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he holds a mock missile during a demonstration against the ending of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in front of the American Embassy at Pariser Platz in Berlin, Germany, 01 August 2019.
© EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER   |   An activist from IPPNW Germany and ICAN Germany wears a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he holds a mock missile during a demonstration against the ending of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in front of the American Embassy at Pariser Platz in Berlin, Germany, 01 August 2019.

Holzstock Festival

A genuine taboo of international relations, which responsible leaders always sought to avoid in times of crises, the nuclear “button” has become commonplace in Russian rhetoric in recent years. The argument has become brash amidst the humiliating defeats sustained by the Russian army in Ukraine. Still, the nuclear threat has been a constant instrument of the Kremlin’s foreign policy propaganda, invoked even when the international context was nothing compared to the gravity of the present moment. Drawing on his crude professional experience, which is based on operative textbooks and a number of heroic legends fabricated by Soviet propaganda, Putin is confident that restraint is but a sign of fear. Lacking in any sense of intellectual finesse, the Russian leader has managed to trivialize the nuclear threat, which proves he doesn’t always have a good understanding of the terms he uses.

Putin, a betting man much like Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who brought the world on the brink of nuclear warfare

Although he definitely feels inspired by Yuri Andropov, who took over the CPSU after a prolonged spell at the helm of the KGB, Putin actually resembles Nikita Khrushchev in terms of his foreign policy choices. Despite his speeches about the “peaceful coexistence” of the two systems, Khrushchev expanded the limits of Soviet influence in the world as much as he could. He succeeded in drawing much of the Arab world and parts of Africa to Moscow’s orbit, although he lost supremacy in the communist world due to his conflict with Beijing. Khrushchev brought the whole world on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe by making an elementary error of judgement. Frustrated that the freshly elected American president, John F. Kennedy, constantly refused to negotiate the status of Western Berlin and accept the terms dictated by Moscow, which sought to eradicate the “cancer” of capitalism at the heart of the GDR, Khrushchev though he could force the Americans into accepting his terms by making a bold move. Encouraged by the genuine technological advancement the USSR had reported in terms of nuclear development, Khrushchev decided to install Soviet nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, thinking this might give him the upper hand in talks with Washington. The result was not what he had imagined. After a series of mutual nuclear threats and a few attempts from Moscow to pierce the US blockade around Cuba, Moscow and Washington sat down at the negotiation table. 1962 was the year that went down in history not just as the moment when the world was at the brink, but also for the fruitful communication between two world superpowers when nuclear weapons were at stake. Although he managed to secure the withdrawal of all US nuclear weapons from Turkey and the promise that Washington will stop forcing out the regime in Havana in exchange for the Kremlin’s withdrawal of any nuclear equipment on the ground, Khrushchev’s strategy was considered by the other Soviet leaders a very dangerous venture. In the fall of 1964, when the father of de-Stalinization was ousted in a peaceful yet effective coup, the conspirators reminded Khrushchev, among other things, that he had brought the USSR on the verge of nuclear warfare, with nothing on the international stage to justify his decisions.

Just like Khrushchev in 1962, Putin tried to overthrow the international order by means of a military venture, which has now turned into a full-blown fiasco. His original design, much like what the Soviet leader had anticipated would happen, turned out to be completely at odds with the hard reality. Yet, unlike the Cuban missile crisis, which involved two robust and predictable administrations and representatives of a generation marked by the direct experience of World War II, today the nuclear threat is part of the Kremlin’s war rhetoric 101. Putin’s announcement about putting his strategic arsenal on high alert, made in the early days of the war, came as a shock not just for what it meant, but also because it proved that, despite the huge amount of information available on Russia, we know much less than we imagined about how the political system in this country actually works. Judging by the lack of substance of all political institutions, by the strict “handling” of the elections, by the obvious tendency of deifying Putin and particularly by the people he appoints in key positions across his administration, it is clear Russia is a neo-patrimonial dictatorship that has reached the height of its power. Although he is near-full control, Putin’s power is yet limited due to the sophistication which is inherent to any modern state apparatus, as well as the need to save face, compelling Putin to act via his acolytes in every sector. The absence of fundamental values that should define the lines of action of the current regime, as well as of practices and institutions aimed at reigning in the president’s prerogatives, has made it so that every decision should require the blessing of the big man at the top. Hence a high degree of unpredictability. In light of all that, when we analyze the prospects of resorting to nuclear weapons, it is not doctrinal texts or public statements that set the level of threat, but simply the way Putin is directly affected by the developments. Unlike all the other crises and wars Russia has experienced, its current decision to wage war against Ukraine has put not just Putin’s political legacy at stake, but his very life. In the event Russia loses this war, as any withdrawal from the territories it occupied after February 24, albeit temporary, would be nothing short of defeat, it’s hard to believe a possible change of regime in Russia would start any other way than by having Putin removed, for reasons that speak for themselves.

With an army decimated by defeats, Putin has his hopes pinned on the cold season, on terrorizing Ukrainian civilians and on tactical strikes meant to give him the upper hand

The absence of a clear distinction between propaganda and politics in Russia resulted in Putin using nuclear rhetoric to soften the effect of his military defeats in Ukraine on the public so far, as journalist Yulia Latynina said in one her public appearances. As the man who gives the order, Putin knows that even the smallest defeat can leave a dent in his reputation of an untouchable and god-like leader. Whether it was the fierce fighting in the Chernihiv area in the early days of the war, the annihilation of the Russian presence in Izium or the offensive of the Ukrainian army in Kharkiv in September, Putin referred to each of these moments by tying them to the possibility of using nuclear weapons.

Judging by the decisions he has taken in recent weeks, Putin is determined to try at least one more time to defeat Ukraine through the sole use of conventional weapons, but also by provoking a humanitarian catastrophe in the upcoming winter. Unlike his appeal to nuclear weapons or even the use of tactical warheads, which has become a genuine possibility, the deployment of new troops recruited in the wake of the mobilization at home and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine generate no major political or military risks for Putin. Moreover, the flurry of Iranian missiles and drone attracks, another sign indicative of Russia’s technological “achievements”, has not just destructive effects on Ukraine, but also fuels propaganda that depicts Putin as a man who takes the war seriously. In fact, it almost makes us believe Kremlin propaganda, namely that every defeat sustained so far by Russia is owed not to Ukraine’s superiority at all levels, but to Putin’s overly compassionate approach to the war.

Putting Surovikin in charge of military operations in Ukraine was another decision with strong political and propagandistic underpinnings. Beyond the rumors of his alleged siding with the radical generals, which earned him the fearsome nickname of “General Armageddon”, Surovikin is nothing but dispensable to Putin. Although many Kremlin diehard supporters, from Yevgeny Prigozhin to Ramzan Kadyrov, were quick to cast the airstrikes with missiles and drones in Ukrainian cities as revenge for the Crimean bridge explosion and the work of Surovikin, Putin hastily decided to take responsibility for the deadly shelling in public. Surovikin’s first public appearance, which he made by giving an interview to TASS agency, included a clear reference to a possible Russian withdrawal from Kherson, which seems to be a normal move when examining the updated map of the operations. Beyond the fact that Russian propaganda and Putin’s supporters have hailed the interview as “the outing of the truth about the war”, Surovikin’s acknowledgement of the military difficulties Russia is experiencing can also be interpreted as a skillful way of hinting he might not well be the new “Victory Marshal”. A public statement from the commander of military operations in Ukraine which opens up the possibility of withdrawing from Kherson, which has just been annexed by Russia, would never have been possible without Putin’s approval, but at any rate, Putin himself would have never made the announcement. In a nutshell, to preserve his reputation and prestige, Putin has picked a new acolyte to use as a front for managing the military operation. Surovikin’s main job is to restore popular confidence in the Russian army, to the extent it is still possible, and to prepare a new large-scale attack, designed to get Russia full control over the annexed regions, which could take place at the end of winter. In the event Putin’s plan pans out, the recently created joint regional force in Belarus might also be sent into play as part of Putin’s second attempt at taking Kyiv. Until then, the Kremlin’s top strategist has his hopes pinned on “General Winter”, much like Emperor Alexander I or Mikhail Kutuzov before him, and on the political consequences of a potential humanitarian catastrophe, rather than on the might of his own army in order to defeat the Ukrainians. Putin will never rule out a humanitarian catastrophe, not even for the Russian-speakers he claims to protect, if that helps him preserve his aura of providential leader, and the rash withdrawal from Kherson is further evidence of that. Right now, apart from “battling” Ukrainian power plants and civilian infrastructure objectives, the Russian army is mostly in defensive formation, and any local skirmishes, such as the one targeting Bakhmut, have been assigned to Prigozhin’s Wagner Company.

If Surovikin fails to accomplish the plan he has been tasked with, which is very likely to happen due not just to Russia’s weaknesses, but also to Ukraine’s strengths, then Putin will revert to his original plan of turning the war around with a single bold and decisive strike.

EBOOK> Razboi si propaganda: O cronologie a conflictului ruso-ucrainean

EBOOK>Razboiul lui Putin cu lumea libera: Propaganda, dezinformare, fake news

Cosmin Popa

Cosmin Popa




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