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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

An ‘Unhinged’ Putin Threatens Dangerous Escalation in Ukraine War

As Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine nears its second week, Putin’s war of choice seems set to enter a uniquely dangerous phase—one that vastly increases the chances of global ramifications far beyond Eastern Europe.

Western countries and alliances spent the weekend arraying a sweeping set of diplomatic and economic tools to punish and isolate Russia economically and individually target the institutions and people around president Vladimir Putin—actions that led Putin on Sunday to threaten even further escalations.

In just a matter of days, Russia has found itself transformed from a global superpower to a pariah state akin to North Korea or Iran. Putin has spent the last two decades seeking a return to what he sees as the glory days of the Soviet Union. He now finds himself under global pressure unlike anything he’s ever faced—more isolated and alone, atop a weaker country than he’s ever led.

It is a dangerous place for a man who has long aspired to be one of the great forces of history.

“It looks to me like Putin has made a gamble of Napoleonic arrogance and has been proven wrong,” says Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the leading observers of great modern power politics. “In an effort to collapse the liberal order, to show that Ukraine is not a real country, that NATO is feckless, that the West isn’t willing to bear any burden for its values—all of that has been proven untrue by Putin’s own hand.”

The weekend of Western unity and action was a monumental—and hardly predictable—outcome. Putin’s geopolitical misbehavior and corruption have spiraled over the last dozen years with seemingly few meaningful Western sanctions; he had invaded Ukraine twice already, crushed political dissidents, rewritten the nation’s history, poisoned political opponents at home and abroad, backed brutal regimes overseas, attacked and attempted to undermine the US election, and hosted a toxic stew of transnational organized crime that has pillaged Western banks and businesses through ransomware and other cyber-enabled fraud.

But with last week’s Ukraine invasion, the West has gotten serious about combating Putin. Over the weekend, in a matter of hours global alliances moved to close their airspace to Russian planes, to rapidly provide a wide variety of military and economic aid to Ukraine, to sanction Russia’s key banks and businesses and uncouple its financial system from the SWIFT banking network, and to investigate the illicit money hordes of Putin and those closest to him.

“This is not where we wanted to be, but this is Putin’s war of choice, and only Putin can decide how much more cost he is willing to bear,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a briefing over the weekend. “Our calculus is that we have two choices: Either we continue to ratchet costs higher to make this a strategic failure for president Putin, or the alternative, which is unacceptable—and that would be allowing unchecked aggression in the heart of Europe, in defiance of the core principles that have kept the peace and security across the continent for 70 years.”

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Beyond government actions, numerous less official or coordinated reputational costs were in some ways just as damaging. BP, which has long held a 20 percent stake in the Russian energy giant Rosneft, announced that it would exit its investment and that its CEO would resign from Rosneft’s board immediately. Norway also announced that it would divest from Russian investments, as did BP rival Shell Oil on Monday, and other former high-ranking European leaders who served on various Russian corporate boards also resigned. Around the world, bars, liquor boards, and state officials pulled iconic Russian vodka brands from shelves. Streets and squares across the world were filled with protesters, and world landmarks were lit in Ukrainian blue and gold.

More broadly, the oligarchs who have long flittered seamlessly between Putin’s orbit and the upper echelons of Western society found themselves under an unprecedented and unwelcome microscope. Billionaire Roman Abramovich appeared to step away from day-to-day decision-making at Chelsea FC. A Ukrainian crew member on a mega-yacht owned by a Russian oligarch was arrested for attempting to sink the ship. And online, a new Twitter account began tracking more than 30 private planes owned by various oligarchs.

That combination of official sanctions and unofficial public and business pressure set the stage for what will surely be a grim economic week for Russia—one whose true costs will be felt in short order by ordinary citizens and business elites alike. As Monday began, Russia faced a nearly unprecedented economic collapse: The Russian ruble cratered, the central bank spiked its key interest rate from 9.5 percent to 20 percent, and the main Russian stock market chose not to open at all. Russian companies that trade overseas faced losses of upwards of 60 percent. All that new economic pressure comes in the wake of an already uniquely challenging few years: Russia badly mismanaged the Covid pandemic, with huge loss of life, and saw its overall population shrink by nearly a million people in the last year.

Facing perhaps the greatest crisis in his presidency, the 69-year-old Putin—who through constitutional maneuvers had already effectively transformed himself into leader for life—threatened over the weekend to escalate the conflict further. He announced a widespread combat alert for the nation’s defensive forces, a move that included its nuclear forces, a worrisome escalation just days after an earlier nuclear threat by the Russian leader had already put the West on edge.

“Clearly Putin is angry, isolated, and more unhinged than I’ve ever seen him,” says James Clapper, a former US Air Force lieutenant general who spent half a century as a US intelligence officer and during the Obama administration was the nation’s longest-serving director of national intelligence. “His speeches and comments are really uncharacteristic for him. I’ve always thought he was cold and pragmatic, but clearly his emotions are getting the better of him.”

For now, Putin’s threats seemed less offensive than defensive, less a promise to rain global thermonuclear war down on the West than a warning that the Western alliances should limit their direct aid to Ukraine. Indeed, the nuclear alert may well have been over-interpreted by Western media; Russia’s military has a four-level alert system similar to the five-level DEFCON system that the US uses. Putin’s alert raised its defense readiness from the lowest level to the next-highest, meaning it’s still two levels away from a war footing. (The Biden administration, for its part, notably did not raise US or NATO military readiness levels in response, seemingly an attempt to de-escalate tensions heading into the week.)

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However, Putin—whose military has performed far more poorly in Ukraine than anyone anticipated and has faced heavy, embarrassing setbacks—also hardly seems likely to accept defeat or a stalemate in Ukraine. “We’re in a really dangerous place; having pushed all the chips into the pot and not succeeded so far, he’s ratcheting up the brutality and targeting of civilians and threatening nuclear consequences if all of us continue to aid Ukraine,” Schake says. “It’s a really dangerous moment … I can think of a bunch of ways this goes bad.”

Dmitri Alperovich, a cybersecurity veteran, cofounder of Crowdstrike, and founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, says the breadth and speed of economic sanctions against Russia surely surprised Putin. “Those will have a devastating impact on Russia and its economy,” he says. “I do fear we’re putting him in a position where he has nothing to lose.”

It seems likely that Russia’s actions, both in Ukraine and potentially in cyber realms abroad, will only grow in violence and intensity. “Putin escalating and escalating to prevent loss is the most likely scenario,” Schake says. “I have a hard time seeing what the face-saving option is for Russia.”

Outcomes that a week ago, preinvasion, might have seemed a possible end to the Russia-initiated crisis—like a tacit agreement that Ukraine would not ascend to EU or NATO membership or an advancement of the Minsk Agreements that might recognize Russia’s occupation of Crimea or eastern Ukraine—seem off the table, given the punishing warfare and Western unity already underway.

Instead, Alperovich says Russia may well move to escalate its more wide-ranging economic war against the West, weaponizing standard Russian commodity exports like fertilizer, aluminum, nickel, and titanium to punish Western trading partners, further foul global supply chains, and heat up already high inflation. Whereas Russia’s own reliance on oil and gas exports makes energy an unlikely lever except as a last resort, Alperovich notes, for instance, that Ukraine is the world’s leading exporter of the neon gas used to manufacture semiconductors. Any Russian efforts to disrupt those exports would further snarl chip production that’s already seen pandemic shortages freeze industries like car manufacturing. “Those are areas where they can inflict economic costs without suffering massively themselves,” Alperovich says.

Whereas Russia has not thus far appeared to use much of its heralded cyber capabilities as part of its Ukraine invasion, the West’s sustained campaign against Russia will almost certainly see cyber consequences in the days and weeks ahead. “It’s always been my contention that if we cut them off from SWIFT, we’re going to be in for some retaliation against our financial sector. I think that's almost a certainty,” Clapper says.

Alperovich also says that he expects to see cyber actions by Russia aimed at breaking Europe and NATO’s unity, but that such effects might well prove limited. “It’s really hard to have lasting damage with cyber,” he says. “They might be able to turn things off for a few hours or days, but we have plenty of capacity to get things back online. But it can cause an escalation that requires us to respond.”

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The greatest threat of actual violence is likely to be contained in Ukraine, where the country’s surprisingly strong defense may continue to frustrate Russian forces and Putin himself, who presumably expected an easy victory. “If the Ukrainian military holds on another week or 10 days, that’s going to be really bad [for Russia] because at that point, what else can Putin do?” Clapper says.

He predicts that the Russian military will grow more indiscriminate and deadly as the conflict continues, perhaps bringing its artillery or even its fiery thermobaric weapon systems to bear against civilian and urban targets, attacks that would likely be considered international war crimes. Russia, Clapper warned, has also traditionally had a lower threshold for the use of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons—although any such use would be a dramatic and unprecedented departure from 75 years of military tradition since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “This could be really violent, brutal, and a lot of death and destruction. I don’t see him backing off, pulling his troops out,” Clapper says. 

A further area of potential and worrisome escalation might come if Russia begins to target or disrupt aid convoys coming from the West and EU, attacks that might also drive further escalation, depending on where and how those convoys are targeted. Any operation against warehouses or goods from a NATO country that are bound for Ukraine might lead the alliance to invoke its Article 5 provision, that an attack on a member country is an attack on the whole alliance.

Even as Russia asked for peace talks to begin with Ukraine this weekend, the world seems set for a week of increased conflict, not decreased.

“It’s hard for me to suggest an off-ramp that’s acceptable at this point,” Clapper says. “I don’t think [Russia’s] in the mood. I don’t have any great ideas.”


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