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Leader: Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and the autocratic threat

The Russian president is not the only authoritarian leader to resort to nuclear sabre-rattling in recent weeks.

By New Statesman

For the first time since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Kyiv is under attack. On 10 and 11 October, air raid sirens sounded in the Ukrainian capital as Russian missiles and drones bombarded the city. They did not target military sites. The Russian air strikes hit a children’s playground in one of the city’s most popular parks, busy intersections during the morning rush hour, residential housing blocks and a pedestrian footbridge. Simultaneous strikes on multiple cities across the country targeted civilian power and water plants, leaving millions of people without electricity, heat, or water.

“They are trying to destroy us and wipe us off the face of the Earth,” said Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, in a statement posted to the messaging app Telegram during the attacks. “Destroy our people who are sleeping at home in Zaporizhzhia. Kill people who go to work in Dnipro and Kyiv.” As they had done in February during the earliest days of the war, Ukrainian citizens carried their children to air raid shelters and underground metro stations, as their mobile phones lit up with warnings of more Russian missiles inbound. “I beg you: do not leave shelters,” Mr Zelensky urged. “Let’s hold on and be strong.”

[See also: Dispatch from Ukraine: Russia’s war returns to Kyiv]

The proximate reason for the strikes is Vladimir Putin’s desire for retribution after the attack on the Kerch Bridge – which links Russia to Crimea – on 8 October. The bridge is a critical component of Russia’s military infrastructure, used to transport supplies to the Black Sea peninsula and the battlefields of southern Ukraine beyond. But it is also a symbol of the Russian president’s rule. He drove an orange Kamaz dump truck, decked out with Russian flags, across the 12-mile-long bridge during the opening ceremony in 2018 and called it a “miracle”. The explosion on the bridge (the precise details of which are still unclear) thus struck at both Mr Putin’s personal prestige and one of the Russian military’s most important supply lines.

Yet, the larger context is the overall course of the war, which Russia is demonstrably losing. Unable to make progress on the battlefield, with his forces steadily ceding ground, Mr Putin has appointed a new commander, Sergei Surovikin, with a notorious reputation for brutality. As a result, Russia is directly targeting Ukraine’s civilians, aiming to sow terror, undermine morale and inflict maximum suffering as the frigid winter sets in. Mr Putin is counting on Ukraine and its Western supporters to crack first. The more desperate the Russian leader becomes, the more he will turn up the volume on his nuclear threats.

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[See also: Vladimir Putin is exposed as a failed war leader]

Mr Putin is not the only contemporary autocrat to resort to violence and nuclear sabre-rattling in recent weeks. On 4 October, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan – triggering air raid alerts across several prefectures – in the latest of a series of missile tests, which Pyongyang said were intended to practice “tactical nuclear strikes” on South Korea. Kim Jong Un claims to be building underwater missile silos and is thought to be planning a new nuclear test in the coming weeks. In Iran, the regime’s security forces are attempting to crush mass protests that began in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after the country’s morality police detained and reportedly beat her for failing to properly cover her hair.

Meanwhile in China, Xi Jinping is preparing to begin a third five-year term in power as the Communist Party’s national congress gets under way on 16 October. During his first decade in charge, Xi has ravaged Chinese civil society and adopted a more assertive posture overseas, pressing the country’s territorial claims across Asia, including over Taiwan. Joe Biden has said the US will defend the island if Beijing attacks, risking a major war between the two nuclear powers.

For the past 30 years, it has been possible to believe that the risk of world war had receded and that the perilous days of nuclear brinkmanship belonged to an earlier era. The Soviet Union had collapsed. China was opening up. Liberal democracy was in the ascendant and the days of brutal, reclusive dictators appeared to be numbered. But now we must confront the world as it really is, and comprehend the crisis with which we are faced. The West must redouble its support – both military and economic – for Ukraine, and as a signal to authoritarian regimes elsewhere. We must meet tyranny with resolve.

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?