Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 27 February 2022

 Putin Finds Himself Isolated, Out of Touch as Invasion of Ukraine Sputters

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Defense Ministry to put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert. PHOTO: ALEKSEY NIKOLSKYI/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN/SHUTTERSTOCK

Updated Feb. 27, 2022 7:20 pm ET

With much of the world moving against him, economic sanctions piling up and a military campaign less successful than he expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday issued the ultimate deterrent threat.

Mr. Putin put his country’s nuclear-deterrence forces on high alert, a warning to the countries lining up to help Ukraine fend off its Russian attackers. The announcement was a window into Mr. Putin’s increasing isolation and anger. His behavior is making his inner circle appear visibly uncomfortable.

Mr. Putin issued his warning Sunday sitting at one end of a very long table. Seated far down the table were two top lieutenants who typically exude confidence. After Mr. Putin ordered them to put the country’s nuclear weapons on high alert, Sergei Shoigu —his longtime defense minister and stalwart ally—lowered his head in a sign of consent.

So far, the Russian leader appears to have miscalculated the economic and political costs as well as the on-the-ground challenges of an attack on Ukraine. His aggression threatens to have far-reaching consequences for both his global standing and the stability of his nation.

Just before the attack, he singled out another close adviser in a televised national security council meeting seen by millions of Russians, taking to task his spy chief, Sergei Naryshkin, for his failure to “speak directly.” Mr. Naryshkin appeared uncomfortable and stumbled over his words as the Kremlin leader pressed him to express his views on whether the breakaway eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk should be recognized as independent.

Russia’s spy chief, Sergei Naryshkin, during a televised security council meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin just before the attack on Ukraine. PHOTO: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/ZUMA PRESS

For more than a decade, Mr. Putin has pushed the boundaries of international behavior, often coming away with what he wanted with penalties that were manageable. He invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008 to support two breakaway republics, seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and threw Russia’s military might behind Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

But he built toward his biggest gamble ever during the isolation of Covid-19. Mr. Putin retreated to his residence outside Moscow and imposed stringent quarantine requirements on anyone wanting to see him.

It was during that period that he began making his current case for attacking Ukraine. In a 7,000-word essay written last summer and published on the Kremlin’s website, Mr. Putin outlined what he said was evidence that Ukraine is an artificially-created country infiltrated by foreign forces and overrun by nationalists who threaten Russia’s security.

Mr. Putin’s essay soon became so core to the Kremlin’s narrative on Ukraine that the Defense Ministry added it to the curriculum studied by all Russian service members, including the 190,000 troops estimated to have massed near Ukraine’s borders ahead of Thursday’s invasion.

Mr. Putin’s rhetoric grew increasingly hostile, in particular to the West and to Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

Watch Ukraine Fuel Depot Near Kyiv in Flames Amid Russian Shelling

Footage shows plumes of black smoke rising from a fuel depot in Vasylkiv, south of Kyiv, as Russian forces targeted airfields and other strategic facilities in Ukraine during the night. Photo: Alisa Yakubovych/Shutterstock

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Paris in January to discuss ways to implement an earlier deal between the two countries called the Minsk-2 agreement. The deal, which remained dormant amid disagreements over how to implement it, gave Russia significant say in Ukraine’s future and Mr. Putin a potentially face-saving way to de-escalate—until he chose to invade and rendered the agreement unviable.

“The current president recently said that no part of the Minsk agreements is to his liking,” Mr. Putin said, referring to Mr. Zelensky. Then Mr. Putin used a common Russian quip: “Like it or not, you’ve got to suffer through this, my beauty.”

“Ukraine is truly a beauty,” Mr. Zelensky later responded, “but when he says ‘my beauty,’ that seems a bit much.”

After talks with French President Emmanuel Macron around the same time, the blame again shifted to NATO.

“We are not moving toward NATO, but NATO is moving toward us,” Mr. Putin charged at a briefing following talks with Mr. Macron on Feb. 8. “Therefore, to say that Russia is behaving aggressively, at least, does not correspond to sound logic.”

Turkey is weighing a request from Ukraine to block Russian warships from entering the Black Sea through a strategic chokepoint. PHOTO: ERDEM SSAHIN/SHUTTERSTOCK

Mr. Putin’s treatise on Ukraine ultimately became the basis of two angry, threatening speeches given last week, one announcing Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states and another, on Thursday, launching a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of NATO-supplied weapons and what Mr. Putin falsely claims are the Nazis who run the country.

“Now a few very important words for those who may be tempted to interfere in events,” Mr. Putin said in Thursday’s address. “Whoever attempts to interfere with us, let alone create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s answer will be immediate and will lead to consequences of the kind you’ve never faced before in your history.”

Mr. Putin’s nuclear threat came as much of the world declared him an international pariah. He is among a small number of leaders to be hit by personal sanctions. That club includes Mr. al-Assad of Syria, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

Now evidence is mounting that even some allies may be moving away from him. Turkey is weighing a request from Ukraine to block Russian warships from entering the Black Sea through a strategic chokepoint. Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman and top aide to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tweeted Sunday that his country would “continue our efforts to help the people of Ukraine and end bloodshed in this unjust and unlawful war.” Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic and ally of Russia, has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Mr. Putin will face added pressure from ordinary Russians who are already being hit by sanctions. Long lines at ATMs over the weekend prompted the central bank to say the Russian financial system was stable. The ruble and stocks are expected to tumble in Moscow on Monday as sanctions hit those markets. Prominent Russians, including some oligarchs, have criticized the invasion while hundreds of Russians have joined street protests violently suppressed by riot police in recent days.

Thousands of Russians Protest Invasion of Ukraine

Demonstrations have broken out in Russia and around the world in recent days to denounce the invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Denis Kaminev/Associated Press

A senior U.S. defense official said Mr. Putin’s move on nuclear weapons was unnecessary because Russia has never been under threat by NATO and dangerous because of the possibility of a miscalculation.

Mr. Putin first touted Russia’s nuclear power before the invasion when he reminded his nation that it is one of the most powerful nuclear nations in the world, and warned that an attack on Russia would lead to defeat of any potential aggressor.

The potential use of nuclear weapons by Ukraine, not Russia, was a well-trodden justification for Russia’s attack.

But Ukraine has no nuclear weapons. In 1994, three years after the demise of the Soviet Union, the newly independent state agreed to give up its roughly 1,800 nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances from the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. Experts in nuclear weaponry have said that while Ukraine has a rich history of nuclear research and has deposits of uranium, it has never had key elements of nuclear industrial infrastructure critical for building nuclear weapons.

—Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington, D.C. contributed to this article.

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