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Putin is losing the war but he will escalate to show he’s still in charge

In the past, Putin has compared himself to a cornered rat: rather than giving up, the rat attacks. He's implied he will never back down. He’ll always escalate, even into self-annihilation.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is failing so spectacularly, it’s making him even more dangerous. Running out of ways to de-escalate while saving face, he appears to think that he has no choice but to escalate. What will that look like?

His problem is that his failures are becoming too obvious to hide even for Russia’s propaganda machine. He attacked Ukraine in part to keep NATO from expanding; instead, NATO will probably admit two new members this year as a result of his aggression. He promised to reunite two populations — Russians and Ukrainians — whom he considers one people; instead, his atrocities have ensured that Ukrainians will forever feel distinct and hate Russia. He pledged to restore Russia to imperial greatness; instead, he’s turned it into an international pariah. The list goes on.

But the main way Putin has lost the war is simply by not winning it. Increasingly, the Ukrainians appear capable of defending themselves against his onslaught. And for them, not losing is victory.

Can Putin survive this defeat? No doubt he’s asking himself this question, in both a political and physical sense. Psychology kicks in as much as calculation. In the past, he’s compared himself to a cornered rat: rather than giving up, the rat attacks. Putin — so he’s implied — will never back down. He’ll always escalate, even into self-annihilation.

He started upping the ante this week by cutting off Russian gas flowing to Poland and Bulgaria. This is not yet a military step, but it’s a historic first — even during the iciest periods of the Cold War, the Soviet Union never used its energy exports as a weapon. His signal is that he could turn off the taps to other European countries. This is economic warfare. You can bet it’ll be accompanied by cyberwar.

On the military side, Putin has already adjusted his war aims to get a bead on a new victim: Moldova. Unable to take all of Ukraine, he’s focusing on controlling just its east and south. The immediate goal is to build a Russian land bridge to connect Crimea, which he annexed in 2014, with the Donbas region now within his grasp. The larger objective is to take the whole Ukrainian coast on the Black Sea. That would turn the rump ruled by Kyiv into a landlocked statelet.

More importantly, this coastal swathe would connect the Ukrainian areas under Russian control to Moldova. That country resembles Georgia, and indeed Ukraine, in that Putin has for years been turning all three into mixtures of proxy and failed states that he can control or subvert at will.

In Georgia, since his invasion of 2008, Putin supports pro-Russian shadow states called Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Ukraine, he has recognized the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. Their equivalent in Moldova is the Russian-separatist region of Transnistria (meaning “beyond the Dniester River”).

Like those other breakaway states, Transnistria is home to many ethnic Russians and Russian troops. This outpost could help Putin open yet another front on Ukraine. But it could also become his staging ground for a pretext to attack all of Moldova, which — like Ukraine — would rather join the European Union.

All this week, things have been blowing up in Transnistria. On Monday, grenades struck; on Tuesday, radio masts exploded; and so forth. Moldova’s government in Chisinau blames the Russian separatists who, in turn, claim the attacks came from Ukraine.

To long-time observers of Putin, the narrative sounds all too familiar. The Kremlin likes to stage “false-flag” incidents as pretexts to attack. As a next step, Putin could invent — as he did before invading Ukraine — tales of “genocide” against the ethnic Russians in Moldova.

Cutting off gas to the EU or attacking more countries would help Putin signal to his foreign enemies and domestic audience that he still has escalation dominance — that he’s still in charge of events. But it won’t remove his bigger problem, which is the fact that his troops increasingly appear bogged down.

One example is the Azovstal steel factory at Mariupol, which Ukrainian troops are defending heroically, even as the surrounding city is reduced to rubble. Putin has tried bombing them into oblivion and starving them out. But the Ukrainians are still there. What next?

This is where the horrifying escalation scenarios start. Putin could use chemical or even tactical (meaning low-yield) nuclear weapons, at Azovstal or elsewhere. That would end any particular battle on his terms. It would also signal that he’s prepared to raise the stakes to the existential level — including nuclear war. “I believe a tactical nuclear strike is being considered in Moscow,” says Oleksiy Arestovych, military adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Frightening as these scenarios are, each would also be a sign of Putin’s growing desperation. Even — or especially — a limited nuclear strike would only redouble the resolve of Ukrainians and the West in resisting the kamikaze rat in the Kremlin.

Even if Putin nominally avoids defeat, whatever victory he’ll try to sell the Russian people will be nothing of the sort. Therein lies the tragedy: He doesn’t care how many human lives he takes with him into oblivion.

The Roman historian Tacitus springs to mind. He imagined a Caledonian warlord gazing at the rubble of Britain after the Roman invasion. “They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ‘empire’,” he said. “They make a desert and call it ‘peace’.” He could be a Ukrainian today, talking about the Russians.- Bloomberg

Also read: How Vladimir Putin’s war ended India’s cheap natural gas dream


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