Biegun: Putin may be on his last legs | Opinion

Stephen Biegun

Vladimir Putin made an attempt last week to salvage Russia from the failing, brutal war in Ukraine that he started seven months ago.  Putin is in a tight corner. He is facing the most significant domestic political discontent he has seen in more than a decade. A dictator who has held power in his country since New Year’s Eve, 1999, Putin may well be on his last legs.

While the discontent in Russia is a consequence of the failed invasion of Ukraine, what truly alarms the Kremlin is that it is not coming from his traditional, more liberal-minded political opponents at home. This time it is Putin‘s supporters who are criticizing his leadership. Having personally ordered this war, his most ardent and nationalist supporters are deeply alarmed that he is not winning it.

They complain he has not been tough enough, not been effective enough, and above all has not been brutal enough to crush the Ukrainian nation. Listening to the remarks of this extreme and influential faction of the Russian political establishment one can hear outright calls for genocide against the Ukrainian people.  

Putin's answer to his critics is to expand the war effort through a “partial” mobilization of hundreds of thousands of military reservists who had already completed their duty — including having already survived service in Ukraine. It has only compounded his problems. Protesters have now taken to the streets of Russian cities to oppose the war. Young Russian males have bought out every available plane ticket to exit Russia, and at Russia’s land borders long lines of cars reportedly snake away from the crossings as more men flee to neighboring countries to avoid being sent to Ukraine.   

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech as he attends a ceremony to receive credentials from newly appointed foreign ambassadors to Russia in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

Growing domestic discontent is not Putin‘s only challenge. He is also facing increasing international pressure, even from his most ardent supporters. Last week, at a summit meeting with Russia’s closest traditional partners and allies in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Putin was openly criticized by the Indian Prime Minister for the war in Ukraine. When Putin met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, it was clear from the conversation that China too has expressed deep reservations to Putin regarding the war. In short, these two stalwart friends of Russia had a simple message for Putin: end this.

Of course, neither domestic discontent nor international criticism are the biggest worry for Putin. He is losing the war. In fact, he has already lost the war that he started; the only question is, can he afford to lose the war that he is now in.

To stave off defeat, Putin has resorted to even more extreme steps. His intelligence services are organizing phony referendums in the parts of four Ukrainian oblasts, or provinces, currently held by the Russian military. These referendums are ostensibly to confirm popular support for this occupied territory to be annexed by Russia.

The Kremlin has already made clear that it will quickly annex these territories after the referendums and will create a new border in which the territory and citizens will be officially declared to be part of Russia.

The referendums will not be accepted by the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, nor will they be acknowledged by any other country in the world with a possible exception of pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Belarus. But they create a possible grave new risk because of what else Vladimir Putin said in his speech to his nation this week.

Putin declared Russia will defend every inch of its territory with all means necessary, i.e., with every weapon it possesses. He was quite explicit in his remarks, specifically threatening the use of nuclear weapons against any nation that would threaten Russia with the same, or that would attack Russian territory.  Since the beginning of this war, Putin has frequently sought to cast his aggression as a defensive measure against the threat to Russia posed by the United States, its NATO allies and Ukraine.

Long used to Putin’s disinformation and lies, Western leaders have met the challenge from Russia by helping the Ukrainian military defend itself and expel the Russian invaders.  Nonetheless, they must now contend with this new threat from the Kremlin. Since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, the fighting has almost entirely been on territory internationally recognized as Ukraine.

With the Russian annexation of occupied territories in Ukraine, and shifting the borders of Russia into the combat zones in Ukraine, Putin will seek to recast the narrative of this war to claim that is Ukraine and its Western supporters that are invading Russia.  He will most certainly reiterate his intention to defend these newly seized territories with all means necessary, including threats to use nuclear weapons.

So, will he? Is Putin so crazy as to use a nuclear weapon in proximity to his own territory and at risk of starting a nuclear war? Putin claims he is not bluffing, and we cannot ignore his threats.  What can we do?

First, we can use Putin’s own rhetoric to deepen concern and further his isolation, even among his friends in Beijing and Delhi.  No doubt they too will find Putin’s recent actions even more alarming and posing even greater risks to their own security. Likewise, members of the United Nations have broadly condemned Putin‘s talk of using nuclear weapons.  The world must act together to tighten sanctions and increase the pressure on Russia.

Second, United States leaders should avoid taking the bait and responding in kind with our own threats against Moscow. We do not need an answer to Putin’s reckless rhetoric, we already have it. The United States and its allies have a nuclear deterrent against such threats, as they have for more than 70 years. It is for this reason that we continue to maintain a nuclear arsenal, and Putin and every Russian leader and military official knows it. Putin may be crazy, but he is not suicidal.

Finally, one cannot rule out what Putin may do out of that desperation, when his only choices are losing the war and likely losing his job. But that should be the civilized world’s other answer to Putin‘s threats. As President Joe Biden said in the early days of this war, Putin must go.  That is even more clear now.  Putin cannot be permitted to prevail in this conflict. And if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it is almost certain that Putin will fall. By keeping our resolve and continuing to support Ukraine, we can achieve both. 

Stephen Biegun is a former Ford Motor Co. executive and deputy secretary of state.