THREE decades after the end of Soviet communism, western governments, media and academics are still Kremlin-watching in the same fog of uncertainty.
What exactly does Vladimir Putin mean when he declares a nuclear alert and warns the West it faces ‘greater consequences than any you have faced in history’ if it intervenes directly in his war against Ukraine? Ultimatum or bluff? No one can be sure.
Kremlin-watching never was much good as a predictive guide to what Moscow might do in any given situation and this remains the case. The West’s response to the war has been therefore been noisy in condemnation but calibrated towards caution.
Weapons have been sent to President Zelensky but Nato has refrained from putting air and ground forces on the front line. The policy has been to brandish a stick at the bear but not to poke it in case Putin is not bluffing, something even Russians are unsure about.
Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazata – publication of which has been suspended for opposing the war – said in Geneva on Tuesday that he ‘would not rule out the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used’.
The nuclear threat is itself opaque. Putin might use a battlefield nuclear weapon and drop it on a harmless part of Ukraine as a warning to Nato. Then again, if the West crosses his reddest line – intervening to fight Russian forces, as war hawks want – he might do something much more drastic.
Even option one is to be avoided since it would mean the first use of nuclear weapons since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and sap the mystique of deterrence on which international security has been predicated since the end of WW2.
Why would anyone rational start a nuclear war which would be a certain disaster for everyone? Because the aggressor believes that, thanks to their anti-missile defences, there would be more of them left standing than their opponents. Is this Putin’s calculation?
His determination should not be underestimated. He invaded Ukraine to get the attention of Nato leaders who had steadfastly ignored his complaints that Nato’s post-Soviet expansion to his western border was an existential threat to Russian security.
An existential threat to a nuclear power cannot ultimately be anything other than a casus belli if it is not removed. Everything said by Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has underlined this.
Nato has refused to discuss seriously Putin’s demand that it withdraw its forward forces from Russia’s proximity. Its own credibility depends on staying where it is, not least at the insistence of its central and east European members which were Soviet satellites after 1945 until the collapse of communism.
They do not trust Russia, and the Ukraine war has confirmed their fears. East and West are locked in a stand-off which is as self-reinforcing as it was during the Cold War.
We have no real idea of what is happening in the Kremlin or Russia itself. The sources in Moscow who report dissent within the government and among ordinary people are conveniently anonymous. It would be odd if no Russians opposed the war as does Muratov, but we do not know how numerous or how representative they are.
According to the media which portrays Putin as a man somewhere between Stalin and Hitler, the Russian leader is isolated in the Kremlin, relies exclusively on television news about the war and is sick. His face is puffy which could mean he’s under debilitating medication and he has to grip the table for support. The proof for this is a photograph of him sitting at a table, his hand resting on the edge in a perfectly normal pose.
Maybe all this is true but there’s no incontrovertible evidence of it other than that imagined by the modern-day Kremlin-watchers, in which case it is worthless unless to remind us that we should be very afraid.
The Western audience is told the Russian army is bogged down and might be driven out of Ukraine if the West gave Zelensky bigger and better weapons. The alternative possibility, which has some battlefield credence, is that Putin has captured as much of Ukraine as he wants. He is concentrated on defending his gains until Zelensky and Nato agree to negotiate. In short, he is doing what he intended.
Meanwhile he is stepping up his own pressure on Nato, cutting off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland as a warning to other EU countries, including Germany, which are dependent on Russian energy and continue to import it because the alternative is serious economic disruption.
The war hawks in Washington evidently believe that Putin’s nuclear threats are a bluff and that Nato could go into Ukraine and deal with Putin’s supposedly cack-handed and ill-led conscript army in the same way that Saddam Hussein was dispatched.
Wisely, Biden has confined himself to verbal belligerence and limited economic sanctions although he is keen to step up military aid to the Ukrainians to help them defend themselves.
In the long run, that cannot be enough. The war has already had vast consequences far beyond Ukraine’s borders, driving Russia and China closer in alliance against the West, disrupting supply chains and causing scarcities of commodities such as wheat which could mean starvation in some countries.
Western countries’ boasted cohesion against Russian aggression is bound to falter as the rebound of sanctions on Russia exacerbates the inflation already besetting their economies.
Ukraine cannot reasonably expect to defeat Russia. Nato has done what it can to limit Russian aggression but there are lines that the West dare not cross and which we cannot be sure Putin will not cross himself if that is what it takes.
This is where we were when the war began on February 24 and nothing has changed. The bottom line: Russia can hold out indefinitely; how long can Ukraine?