Luke Malpass is Stuff’s political editor.
OPINION: There is a possibly apocryphal tale that Vladimir Putin was once on record as telling.
In an early set of interviews he gave in 2000, he told a story about living in a ropey little Leningrad flat as a boy. As relayed by Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, the young Vladimir learnt what it was to be backed into a corner.
“There, on that staircase, I figured out once and for all what the word ‘cornered’ means. There were rats in the hallway. My friends and I would always chase them with sticks. Once I saw a huge rat and started pursuing it until I chased it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. So it turned around and threw itself at me. It was unexpected and very scary. Now the rat was chasing me.”
Putin has now become the rat. Despite having started the war with Ukraine, he feels like he is the one who has been chased with the sticks and is now in the corner. Perhaps he has always viewed himself – and post-Soviet Russia – in this way.
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The war with Ukraine is now clearly on the verge of entering a new phase, fresh off the back of Ukraine regaining thousands of square kilometres of territory from Putin’s forces. The fact that the Russian state now has the ability to conscript and mobilise some 300,000 troops (a so-called partial mobilisation) is clearly both a sign of desperation and sending a message to the rest of the world. Some reports even suggest that a secret decree has been signed authorising a million troops.
Partly, throwing more troops at the problem is to offset the appalling state of readiness and provisioning of the Russian army, overseen by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. In 2005 Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. He also went on to say – in a predictive statement of what was to follow – that “as for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory”.
Yet it now appears that one of the few major institutions that retained its Soviet ethos was the Russian military, in the sense of the “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us” – a joke popular in the 1970s Soviet Union.
As it turned out, such is the lying, mismanagement and pilfering in the Russian armed forces that those in charge genuinely didn’t know what the military was capable of. Or they thought they knew, but what they knew was actually untrue. As it turned out, capability was much less than was thought, both in Russia and in the West. The Ukraine offensive has been beset by poor planning, under-provisioned soldiers and desertion.
The other measure Putin has tried to take to turn the war in his favour – to cut Russia’s gas supply to Europe – has not had the desired effect of discouraging European involvement in the war. Although Europe could be in for a very harsh winter off the back of it.
So, Putin has now pretty clearly left the option of nuclear deterrence on the table.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff,” he said in a televised address to the nation on Monday night.
The spectre of nuclear war is one that sends shivers down the spine of people everywhere. But it is worth understanding that, for Russia, using nuclear weapons as strategic leverage has a long and storied pedigree.
The story of the Suez crisis, for example, was told one way in the West and a very different way in the Soviet Union. Generally, the West’s version was that US President Eisenhower helped to resolve the impasse by telling the British and the French to stop trying to reclaim the canal after Egypt nationalised it. In the Soviet Union – and Russia – the story goes that the defining factor was Nikita Khrushchev’s threat that the Soviet Union could potentially use nuclear weapons.
The political economy of nuclear weapons in the West is to avoid at all cost any suggestion that they should be used, whereas Russia has a history of it being a legitimate part of the tactical game. The question for the West and those nations supporting Ukraine is the response to these threats and any future incentives those responses might create.
In the past couple of days, New Zealand’s politicians have been debating whether to expel the Russian ambassador as a result of Putin’s rhetorical escalation. In Parliament – a building heavy on symbolism – these things matter. But the situation between Russia and New Zealand seems not to have changed materially enough for this to be warranted yet. There are also costs to expelling an ambassador that need to be considered – they are almost higher than any gains at the moment.
Nevertheless, in the game of statecraft, keeping the option of expulsion open is important for Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Equally valid was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s view, from New York, that expelling the ambassador is among the least effective measures New Zealand could take.
Clearly, the war has now entered a new and dangerous phase. Putin and his inner circle have few options open to them. Most, if not all, of them have been effectively blacklisted by the West, Russia has been shut off from the international finance system, and the movement and commercial options for oligarchs have been securely crimped.
Given that, the choices for Putin are limited. A loss of territory, or no gain, for a lot of blood and treasure risk him being rolled in a palace coup; escalation of the war risks the same. Attempting to frame the war as a battle of the West versus Russia is a way of trying to galvanise the Russians. What slim data there is out of Russia suggests that is not working. There seems a distinct lack of patriotic fervour among Russians for invading their neighbours.
Add the fact that China and India – both relatively friendly with Russia – have made discouraging noises about the prospect of more war and Russia is looking increasingly isolated.
That is precisely what makes Putin dangerous. It is now very difficult to see how he can extricate himself from the decisions he has made. The more desperate the cornered rat becomes, the more dangerous the situation for the rest of the world.