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Vladimir Putin’s land grab is an act of desperation

By annexing parts of Ukraine, the Russian president has created a perilous situation. But will it do anything to salvage his war?

By Katie Stallard

“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!” The announcer’s voice boomed as the heavy gilded doors swung open and the Russian president strode into the Kremlin’s cavernous St George’s Hall on 30 September. The soldiers saluted. The regime elite sat up. Perhaps they were hoping that this would be the moment that Putin revealed his grand plan – when it would become clear how he intended to win the war that Russia is losing. Instead, they got a rambling, 37-minute monologue that was filled with historical grievances dating back several centuries and an assortment of wild conspiracy theories.

In the event, very little of Putin’s speech was about Ukraine. As he had done eight and a half years earlier, when he illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the Russian president pretended that he was merely respecting the will of the people living in the four partially occupied Ukrainian regions by granting their request to be absorbed by Russia. He invoked the right to self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter and a vague notion of “historical affinity”, glossing over the truth that he was redrawing borders by force. “I want the Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me, so that they remember this,” Putin said. “People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever.”

He focused less on nuclear weapons than he had done in previous speeches, but the implicit threat remained as he promised to “defend our land with all the forces and resources we have”. He noted that the United States had used nuclear weapons to bomb the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, adding ominously: “And they created a precedent.” The rest of the speech veered from the origins of Western imperialism and the slave trade, to the “plunder of India and Africa”, and the Opium Wars between China and the British and French empires in the 19th century. This last reference was presumably a nod to Beijing, where the Chinese leadership frequently cites this period as an example of the “century of humiliation” that China is said to have suffered before the Communist Party came to power.

[See also: The unravelling of Vladimir Putin]

From there, it only got more unhinged. Putin railed against the West’s supposed plot for “total domination” of the world. The US was occupying Germany, Japan and South Korea, he insisted, and treating their political leaders “like slaves”.

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“The whole world knows that the top officials in these countries are being spied on and that their offices and homes are bugged,” he said. He claimed that the US was manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine; that “Anglo-Saxons” had sabotaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines beneath the Baltic Sea on 26 September (in fact, the evidence points to Russia), and that Western countries – where he claimed gender reassignment surgery was commonplace – had descended into “pure Satanism”.

Yet his most bizarre claim was that Russia was leading an “emancipatory, anti-colonial movement”. Even with his forces then occupying Ukrainian territory, where they are raping, torturing and murdering civilians, Putin insisted that he was the one fighting against “despotism” and engaged in a “great liberating mission” in Ukraine.

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It was a bleak speech that surely appealed only to his most repugnant supporters. The thuggish head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, affected to be moved to tears as he listened, while the pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky responded with murderous glee. “We’ll conquer everyone, we’ll kill everyone, we’ll loot whoever we need to, and everything will be just as we like it,” he vowed in a video he recorded on his phone as he filed out of the room.

During the celebratory concert in Red Square that night, the Russian actor Ivan Okhlobystin called for a “holy war” from the stage, while the crowds (many of whom had been bussed in for the occasion) sang along to songs with lyrics such as, “We won’t care about the price.”

In March 2014 the seizure of Crimea was greeted across much of Russia with euphoria and the sense that Putin had delivered a masterstroke – but this time the context is starkly different. Mobilisation orders are being handed out and Russian sons, husbands and brothers are sent to fight, in many cases with minimal equipment and training. Hundreds of thousands of draft-age men have already fled the country. The latest opinion poll from the independent Levada Centre in Moscow, which was carried out between 22 and 28 September, found that only 29 per cent of Russians questioned were definitely in favour of continuing the war.

When the television cameras showed the audience of invited dignitaries during Putin’s speech, it was striking how many of them looked utterly miserable as they listened to his tirade.

The Ukrainian military gave its response to Putin’s announcement on the battlefield. Less than 24 hours after he had declared that the four new regions were now irrevocably part of Russia, Russian forces had abandoned part of that territory.

By the morning of 1 October, Ukrainian troops had reclaimed Lyman, a strategic rail hub in the Donetsk region, where they performed victory dances in the town centre and raised the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. The bodies of Russian soldiers and the wreckage of Russian armoured vehicles were strewn along the roads leading out of the city, marking the path of their retreat – or, as the Russian ministry of defence put it, their decision to withdraw to “more advantageous lines”.

The following day, on 2 October, there were reports that the Russian defensive lines were also beginning to collapse in the southern region of Kherson, which Putin also claims to have annexed.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that his forces had already recaptured two towns and would continue to push further south towards the regional capital. In other words, he is calling the Russian president’s bluff. Zelensky held his own signing ceremony in Kyiv after the Russian leader’s speech, formally submitting Ukraine’s request for fast-track accession to Nato and declaring an end to any possibility of peace talks as long as Putin was in charge.

“I don’t see any trepidation in Kyiv in response to Russia’s more explicit nuclear threats,” Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, told me. “No one is scared, though everyone takes this issue seriously.”

[See also: “This is not a bluff”: would Vladimir Putin risk nuclear war?]

He said that the absence of fear was partly because Russian conventional strikes had already caused as much damage across the country as dozens of tactical nuclear weapons, but also because Ukraine was fighting for its survival and had no choice but to keep pushing forward. “You can’t scare a nation that is in an existential fight,” Bielieskov said. “We know that if we lose it means genocide.”

News of the Ukrainian gains has filtered through on to Russian state television, where contributors to the usually bombastic talk shows, such as the former deputy foreign minister Andrei Fedorov, suggested over the weekend that Ukraine could soon start bombing Russian cities such as Moscow. Maxim Yusin, a foreign policy analyst, noted glumly that “things aren’t going so well” and criticised the “dreamers who live in their own world”. And when Andrey Gurulyov, a member of parliament and a former commander in the Russian military, was asked to account for Russia’s desperate retreat from Lyman, he blamed a system of lies from “top to bottom” before his connection suddenly cut out.

Prominent figures within the system have begun to criticise the Russian military leadership – although taking care to target the blame below Putin. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the wealthy financier who is behind the notorious Wagner paramilitary group, has called for senior officers to be sent “barefoot with machine guns to the front lines”. More worryingly, Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, has urged the Russian president to employ “more drastic measures”, such as tactical nuclear weapons. 

It is still difficult to see how the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would bring Russia closer to victory. At the same time, it is likely such an attack would involve irradiating territory that Putin has just claimed as part of Russia. Yet the possibility cannot be discounted.

The US president, Joe Biden, has warned Putin against considering a nuclear strike, but he has also tasked a group of national security officials – the so-called Tiger Team – with studying the options for an American response. In an interview with ABC News on 2 October, the retired US army general David Petraeus predicted that, in the event of a Russian nuclear strike, the US would respond with a large-scale assault on Russian forces in Ukraine using conventional weaponry. “Just to give you a hypothetical,” Petraeus said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Biden administration, “we would respond by leading a Nato – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” 

The question following such an intervention is how Russia would respond, and whether Putin would resort to even more dangerous measures – such as a direct strike on US or Nato forces, or a Nato member – which could then trigger a larger nuclear conflagration.

Yet these are also exactly the kind of questions Putin wants Ukraine’s backers in the West to be pondering. Through his nuclear sabre-rattling and his (likely, though unproved) attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines, the Russian leader is trying to focus minds in Europe and the US on how much they are prepared to risk for Ukraine – whether they are prepared to go without gas and heating in the winter, or to take the chance that he will launch a nuclear strike.

Vladimir Putin is still counting on Western countries to crack first, and pressure Ukraine to sue for peace on his terms, but as Ukrainian forces fight back, it is increasingly clear that this plan will fail. There are even more dangerous days ahead.

[See also: Ukraine’s army makes a mockery of Vladimir Putin’s annexation]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!