Putin seen as more dangerous as Russia-Ukraine war worsens

Conflict observers and Moscow say Russian President Vladimir Putin is becoming more dangerous and desperate as he faces mounting pressure at home over his war in Ukraine.

Putin again threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and annex territory from Ukraine last week, while arguing that an attack on the territory would amount to an attack on Russia.

His government is also suspected of leaking into a pipeline under the Baltic that transports fuel to Europe, although gas flow was earlier suspended.

The new threat, announced after Russia mobilized 300,000 reservists in response to criticism of Putin’s war effort, was met with a nationwide pushback. Images have circulated of car lines trying to cross the border into neighboring countries, underscoring the internal tensions of the war.

The Biden administration and U.S. allies have responded forcefully, warning that the use of nuclear weapons would have severe consequences.

Outside experts describe a tinderbox.

“He’s dangerous, he’s desperate,” said Daniel Freed, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Poland.

“Because he’s in a weak position, he’s doubling down on what he may consider to be his strongest remaining assets: the nuclear threat and the ability to use violence to achieve his goals, such as blowing up the Nord Stream pipeline, if in fact Russia is responsible , it appears they might be. He wants to use unpredictability as a tactical weapon to terrorize the West.”

Putin warned that the threat to use nuclear warheads was not a bluff, something the White House took notice on Wednesday.

“We take the threat of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons seriously,” White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “But we haven’t seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, and we won’t be intimidated by supporting Ukraine.”

At the Pentagon, a senior defense official reiterated that the United States had alerted Moscow.

“We have clearly warned Moscow that any use of nuclear weapons will have serious consequences. We are not going to elaborate on what those specific responses will be,” the official said.

“As far as allies are concerned, we have consulted closely with our allies on all issues related to Ukraine, including of course all aspects of the Russian threat,” the official added. “But of course, the United States also has its own prerogative to adopt. America’s choice.”

More than 100,000 Russian men are reportedly fleeing the country while protests are being held in dozens of locations in response to the mobilization. There have been incidents of violent reprisals against recruiters.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow has warned Americans to leave the country immediately and dual citizens may be called up to fight.

The annexation of at least four territories in Ukraine — a process launched through competition that the U.S., allies and the United Nations have seen as a “sham referendum” with phased results — is heightening the threat of global confrontation.

Jean-Pierre on Wednesday denounced the vote as “pre-planned and planned by the Kremlin” and pointed to armed guards prowling around polling places in an attempt to intimidate and influence voters.

When sending heavy artillery to Ukraine, the Biden administration has demanded and received assurances from the Ukrainians that they would not launch attacks on Russian soil, for fear that such an action would escalate a larger Russian response.

But the restriction is not expected to apply to Ukrainian territory forcibly occupied by Russia.

“Ukraine has the absolute right to defend itself within its territory, including reclaiming territory that has been unlawfully occupied by Russia in some way,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters on Tuesday. “The weapons that we and many other countries have given them have been used very effectively to do this.”

The United States has not adjusted its nuclear posture in response to Putin’s latest remarks, a sign that it sees no imminent threat and that it does not want to escalate the conflict.

Still, lawmakers like Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, are sounding the alarm.

“I worry that Vladimir Putin is getting desperate,” Coons said in an interview with MSNBC. “We should always take his threat of nuclear weapons seriously. But frankly, we need to fight back like President Biden and make it clear that if he does, NATO will respond quickly and decisively.”

Some analysts say Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons given that he is likely to face a near-unanimous pushback.

“Anyone who understands the dynamics of the international community knows that the international community cannot stand idly by, and the next day, when any government uses nuclear weapons for the first time since World War II, everything changes,” said Evelyn Farkas, Arizona State University McCain Executive Director of the Institute.

“Vladimir Putin has to know this. He has to know that he will face regular attacks and he will face international attempts to remove him from the Kremlin, to step down.”

Still, experts believe Putin’s latest moves — mobilizing the military, mentioning the threat of a nuclear reaction and annexing territory through vote manipulation — signal the growing desperation of the leader facing a wave of war in Ukraine.

Mark Cansian, a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he thinks Putin’s strategy at this time may be to extend the war into the winter, when energy costs in Europe will rise, the fighting will be more difficult, and the entire continent may be more difficult. Cracks start to form.

Farkas responded that Putin has long used action as a strategy to buy time.

“Most of his political experience of ruling Russia and waging war told him that if he could buy a little time, he might pull a rabbit out of his hat, he might get lucky, or something else might happen. So he benefits. This ability to buy time until something else happens, or he can cause something else to happen, or he can wait for his opponent, or who knows,” she said.

Alan Mitchell contributed to this story.

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