Wissot: Calling Putin’s bluff is becoming inevitable
Vladimir Putin is playing Russian roulette with the West. He has put a gun to the head of the U.S. and European alliance that contains one loaded chamber and dared them to provoke him into pulling the trigger. To date, they have been reluctant to take Putin’s dare knowing that the chamber could contain nuclear weapons.
The longer Putin can keep America and Europe on pins and needles, the less likely it is that the Ukrainians will get the planes, tanks, sophisticated missile systems and the imposition of a no-fly zone they have begged the alliance to give them.
Making it harder for the Ukrainians to resist Russian aggression for fear of enraging Putin is giving him the opportunity to double down on his effort to occupy more territory and continue to decimate the country. Putin’s military is being outplayed by the Ukrainian armed forces, but he is outfoxing the United States and NATO in the battle of wits.
The alliance realizes that the more Russia’s military objectives fail, the more unstable Putin may become. What happens then? Are we going to ask the Ukrainians to pull back their troops as they retake villages and towns for fear that it will provoke Putin into authorizing the use of chemical weapons? Are we going to lessen the crippling sanctions placed on Russia because a cratering of their economy could push a desperate Putin into doing the unthinkable?
As one longtime observer of Putin told The New York Times: “I think at this point he either wins or he’s done. Done politically, done physically.” When Putin said he viewed a Western-backed Ukraine as an existential threat, he wasn’t referring to Russia. He was referring to himself. What constitutes a win for Putin is what will determine how this war ends.
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Putin has brought us closer to nuclear warfare than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In the greatest accomplishment of JFK’s tragically abbreviated presidency, he was able to convince the Russian leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, that mutual destruction was in neither country’s interests. Khrushchev was bellicose and belligerent, but he wasn’t crazy. The same cannot be said of Putin, who resembles a genocidal fascist like Hitler more than he does any Cold War communist leader after Stalin.
The world is worried about Putin’s lurch toward lunacy. The signs of his mental deterioration have been noticeable in recent years. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in observing changes in him, told The New York Times: “I’ve seen Putin go from a little shy, to pretty shy, to arrogant, and now megalomaniacal … He’s not in control of his emotions. Something is wrong.”
The top diplomatic adviser to French president Emmanuel Macron used the word “paranoid” to describe a speech given by Putin just before the war began.
Referring to Putin’s grandiose ambitions for Russia, a senior German diplomat said in the same New York Times piece, “We did not realize that Putin had spun himself into an historical mythology and was thinking in categories of a 1,000-year empire. You cannot deter somebody like that with sanctions.”
Putin enjoys a carelessly casual relationship with the truth. You can’t take him at his word because his word is worthless. As the French ambassador to Russia from 2017-2020 put it, “You must understand, he is from the K.G.B, lying is his profession. It is not a sin.”
A close advisor to former German chancellor Angela Merkel said she was furious with Putin after he categorically lied to her about his intention to invade Crimea in 2014. “He lied to her, lies, lies, lies.”
The challenge facing Putin’s adversaries (pretty much the civilized world now) in playing a deadly game of doomsday chess with him is that they don’t know if Putin is lying about using nuclear weapons or actually crazy enough to use them. Hope rests with his continuing to be the liar he has always been.
Putin has single-handedly changed the world order with his foolish foray into Ukraine. In order to appreciate the full magnitude of his miscalculation, consider this assessment: “In a single stroke, Mr. Putin has galvanized NATO, ended Swiss neutrality and German postwar pacifism, united an often fragmented European Union, hobbled the Russian economy for years to come, provoked a massive exodus of educated Russians and reinforced the very thing he denied had ever existed, in a way that will prove indelible: Ukrainian nationhood.”
The longer the West procrastinates about giving Ukraine what it needs to succeed militarily, the more Putin will view their hesitancy as weakness. At an early age, young Vladimir learned from his father, who was badly wounded in what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War to defeat the Nazis, that the “weak get beat.” Hoping that the adult Vladimir may be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs but not suicidal, is the risk we may have to take in order to put an end to the senseless suffering of the Ukrainian people.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.