What does Vladimir Putin want? The question has been on the minds of politicians and military observers in the West and Russia since the former spy emerged as the 21st century tsar at the turn of the 2000s.
This opacity is perhaps his greatest asset, given that it fits both the laudatory description of his abilities to survive and consolidate power over these two decades and the accusation of being more of a tactical and reactive leader than a strategic thinker.
His campaign in Ukraine, however, follows a logical timeline of complaints, signals and concrete gestures. Read as a neo-imperialist in the West, she emulates the thinking of the Russian elite that now finds itself terrified by the spiral of facts in the ongoing war.
In short, it is a view that the West took advantage of Russian weakness after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, with an increasing economic and military siege. It is grounded in several undeniable realities, such as the expansion of NATO and the need of the largest country in the world to see its strategic borders protected after the loss of buffer territories: be it Ukraine, Georgia or Kazakhstan.
But it also disregards other things, starting with the symbiotic energy partnership with Europe, which now takes its toll with the threat of a cold and hungry winter on the continent, but also the position of this elite in the globalized world.
In this sense, the Russian invasion, seen by many people close to the Kremlin as impossible given the cost it would entail, is a paradoxical self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the famous Munich speech in 2004, Putin has always said what bothered him and marched in the face of Western mutism.
That was when it fought in Georgia in 2008, when it annexed Crimea and incited the Donbass war in 2014. That aside from action on secondary fronts, such as the Syrian civil war in 2015, the conflict in the Caucasus in 2020 or the suppression of the Kazakh uprising. last January. For Americans to see it or not, they were actions.
In 2021 alone, Putin promoted two major mobilizations to threaten to resolve the issue of his border with Europe “manu militari”. It was not heard: despite being something close to a failed state, Ukraine is sovereign and a double perception weighed on the West: on the one hand, the idea that Putin would not stop there, on the other, the convenience of weakening the biggest ally of the China without risking a nuclear war.
Until here. The Russian campaign was marked, in the first phase that failed to take Kiev by scare and the third, which saw the fall of the occupied areas in Kharkiv, by a mixture of arrogance and tactical ineptitude, allied to the lack of sufficient personnel. More success came on Monday, when the Kremlin focused on the Donbass and on consolidating the land bridge between the region and Crimea.
Still, the voices of Russian elite hawks, many former security services like the powerful head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, have always called for a toughening that Putin avoided for fear of further domestic attrition — while keeping the anti-Western rhetoric sharp.
Now it resorts to a political atomic bomb, preparing the annexation of areas not entirely under its control and announcing the mobilization of 300,000 men. The problem, for the president and for the West, is that this process carries a greatly increased risk of some real nuclear device ending up in use.
The design is simple: if Donbass is Russian and Ukraine attacks it with Western aid, then Russia is under attack and that harks back to the nuclear doctrine signed by Putin in 2020.
According to her, the bomb will be used if the country is attacked with weapons of mass destruction, which is kind of obvious. But also “in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons, when the very existence of the State is under threat”.
In his speech announcing the war on February 24, Putin said: “For our country, [a Ucrânia se aliar ao Ocidente] it is a matter of life and death, of our historic future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration, it is a fact. It is not just a very real threat to our interests, but to the very existence of the State and its sovereignty.”
Rhetoric, of course, for a Third World War would end the world as we know it, and for a while it did. But it leaves open the possibility, especially the use of tactical warheads, those of low power and little residual contamination, for use against troops.
The problem is that your job can win battles, but to win wars the step is above: tactical weapons, which devastate entire cities and make the ground unfeasible. The notion that an attack with a smaller warhead would lead to escalation is conventional for good reason.
The risk, therefore, leaves the field of speculation again, as it did in some moments of this war. Putin aims to consolidate his gains so far, not negligible and that make life difficult for Ukraine as a state, blackmailing a Europe frightened by the winter ahead.
He does so with his riskiest move so far, with no guarantee that it will work and perhaps forcing him to call the bet he made in order not to lose his chair. If you have that on the horizon of possibilities, it’s unfathomable — and harrowing for that very reason.
With a wealth of experience honed over 4+ years in journalism, I bring a seasoned voice to the world of news. Currently, I work as a freelance writer and editor, always seeking new opportunities to tell compelling stories in the field of world news.