Assessing Putin’s Threats
It’s clear that Putin’s gambit has not gone to plan. He thought he could take Ukraine quickly, decapitate the government, install a puppet, and return home victorious with the full support of his global Fifth Column operation.
Instead, Zelenskyy has emerged as a global hero and symbol of defiance. Old ladies have told Russian soldiers to “put seeds in their pockets” so that when they die, sunflowers grow—giving a powerful symbol for resistance and national identity.
The Russian army’s morale is low; logistics appear to be an afterthought; vehicles are running out of fuel and being captured (and sold) or destroyed by civilians. Russia has taken significant losses and this war is costing about $20 billion per day, when Russia’s entire military budget for a year is about $60 billion.
The conflict is escalating rapidly. Here’s a summary of some of the key developments.
- Russia is now financially isolated. The SWIFT payments network has disabled access for many Russian banks. The US has announced they are cutting off transactions with Russia’s central bank, reported to have about $600 billion in cash reserves. The European Commission has said, “”We will … ban the transactions of Russia’s central bank and freeze all its assets, to prevent it from financing Putin’s war.” The Russian stock market was closed today, fearing a massive collapse. The Ruble is down as much as 40%. Putin has called an emergency meeting with his economic advisors over sanctions. Even long-neutral Switzerland has announced they will join the European sanctions regime.
- Russia’s losses are mounting. The Kyiv Independent reports that Russia has lost at least 5,300 troops so far, 29 planes, 29 helicopters, 816 armored personnel cars, and much more. Putin underestimated the resolve and capability of the Ukrainian people, as well as the willingness of NATO allies and partners to provide resources and weaponry. This important thread suggests that Russia is running out of weapons quickly, and cannot resupply because of lack of raw materials supplied by Slovenia, Finland, or Germany, who have cut off trade.
- Simple math suggests Russia will implode. If the war is costing about $20 billion per day, and the entirety of reserves in the central bank are about $600 billion, Russia will be entirely broke within a matter of weeks. That’s assuming that money can flow freely, which it can’t.
- Cryptocurrency offers no viable solution for bypassing sanctions at scale right now. There are many reasons for this but Stephen Diehl offers a good immediate take: “The people who think institutions are going to use crypto to work around sanctions are absurd. You think financial institutions want to repaper their contracts, which are all denominated in euros and dollars, every 30 minutes to reflect the price risk. Never going to happen.”
- Europe has united in support of Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz brought Germany into a new era with a speech outlining the country’s change of attitude towards the conflict. Germany has promised to deliver weaponry, invest in LNG infrastructure to eliminate dependence on Russian gas, and to enhance its long-term spending commitment under NATO. Sweden and Luxembourg have supplied weapons and troops. Zelenskyy has requested that the EU fast-track its application to become a member of the European Union, which would only accelerate its eventual potential membership in NATO.
- Putin’s oligarchs are signaling displeasure with his war of choice. Much has been made over the oligarchs and how Putin has to answer to them. But that’s really not correct; Putin chose his oligarchs carefully and can also choose to kill them if he likes. I wrote a thread on the distinction between oligarchy (in Russia, rule by chosen elite) and plutocracy (rule by the wealthy): these oligarchs derive their power from proximity to Putin, and for now they need him more than he needs them. However, they have expressed their displeasure by memorializing slain Putin opponent Boris Nemtsov as well as talking about “ending state capitalism.” It would seem they are trying to form a coalition of the willing (which would really need to include members of the military too) to remove Putin from power.
- Rumors about rifts in Putin’s inner circle abound. Alexander Vindman reported yesterday that Putin’s military strategist Valery Gerasimov (of the much-discussed hybrid warfare ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’) may have been fired. Relations with both Shoigu and Gerasimov are at least tense, with Putin shouting orders at them from the other end of a long table. The Kremlin denied Gerasimov had been fired, lending more credibility to the idea that it might have a kernel of truth. Regardless, rumors of discord only erode Putin’s position.
- The Russian Orthodox Church has endorsed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Many analysts have discarded the “religious” aspect of this war. A key underlying theory of Putin’s plan is to try to serve as the bastion for Christian Orthodoxy and in so doing, unite the Russian, Ukrainian, and Greek orthodox networks with the far-right faction of the Roman Catholic church. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has supported Putin’s action, while head of the US Orthodox church has condemned Putin and Kirill for making this a “holy war.” The idea of “Moscow, Third Rome” has old roots in American conservatism, and can be linked back to both Whittaker Chambers and Pat Buchanan. The Orthodox Church has also historically served an important intelligence function. This thread discusses the overlap between GRU intelligence and the church, aiming to exert control over key figures. Importantly, Putin is not religious, but he knows the Orthodox Church is a powerful tool for controlling and spying on the people needed to achieve his goals.
- A wide range of Putin Fifth Columnists has emerged globally, on both the left and right. From shills at CPAC and the adjacent Nick Fuentes White Supremacy Festival to DSA, Chomsky, and ‘Justice Democrats,’ a broad anti-NATO chorus has emerged in unison repeating Kremlin propaganda. I’ve been cataloging such instances (which span both the right and the far left) on Twitter. Many people are employing mental gymnastics to retroactively explain why this is happening, and frankly, please just stop. Everyone needs to cudgel their “feelings” and “thoughts” about their ‘heroes’ and ‘teammates’ and question their moral leadership if they cannot bring themselves to oppose Putin and his murderous rage. As Putin shows himself to be weak, a loser, and isolated, his hangers-on and enablers will begin to flee like rats, not only in Russia but throughout his entire fifth column. Bootlickers only like a strongman when they think he is a winner. Let them scurry to hide now.
- Russia has begun using cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons. This suggests they are becoming increasingly desperate, have no clear strategy, and are simply aiming to terrorize, as they have done in prior conflicts such as in Chechnya. Cluster bombs, illegal in many countries, create widespread destruction and mass terror. Thermobaric bombs create a massive aerosol cloud of fuel and air that then explodes with energy just short of tactical nuclear weapons. Civilians exposed to these bombs will be effectively liquified before dying a fiery death.
- Wagner Group mercenaries have been deployed in Ukraine to find and kill members of the Ukrainian government. It remains to be seen how effective they can actually be in this context, but it represents a new level of threat for the Ukrainian government, who apparently just started so-called “peace talks” which almost certainly will result in no new developments.
The Nuclear Question
Putin has been chattering about giving orders for nuclear readiness, which has been met by significant alarm — even as this posture is not new and has occurred frequently over the last several decades, including in 2014 when Putin invaded Ukraine then.
There are several valid frames with which we should consider this threat:
- Experienced analysts disagree on whether Putin might escalate this conflict, and how. The conventional, sober analyst opinion is that Putin would not dare use chemical or nuclear weapons. However, these same people for the most part did not expect Putin to invade. They were, in a word, wrong. There is a kind of respectability politics in which pundits seem so anxious to be invited on TV that they pull back from anything that might be considered extreme, or a worst-case scenario. Quite often, this results in cognitive error. Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia, noted this divide and indicated that the threat Putin presents is serious.
- There is no reason to think Putin is rational, or cares about himself or his own people. Putin has not suddenly lost his marbles. He is doing the same risky and inhumane things he has done for decades. From poisoning opponents, shooting down airliners, destabilizing countries, interfering with elections, to his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, he has never hesitated to kill, to use inhumane methods, or kill civilians. Putin does not care. He will do whatever he thinks makes him look strong.
- Russia has no future in the current global order. Russia cannot stop its invasion now and ever be accepted back into the international community. Sanctions, bans, laws, and tariffs are now in place and there is no prospect for how or why they would ever be lifted as long as Putin is in power. The only way out of this for Putin is to either a) be overthrown and possibly killed, b) try to subjugate the whole world by any means necessary.
- Analysts urging calm tend to downplay the mystic and religious aspects of Putin’s strategy. Five years ago, I noted an essay (The Swamp and the Fire) by Aleksandr Dugin that presaged everything that’s happening now, as well as Putin’s rhetoric from this week. That month I wrote another essay that predicted this general Duginist strategy as it’s unfolded. I would argue that as a predictive tool, the Duginist mindset has been more useful than any conception of Putin as a cold rational actor. I don’t think this is because Putin is himself a mystic; it’s because he is out of other legitimate ways to retain his power and is willing to listen to the rantings of madmen to seek any sort of viable alternative.
- Putin has deployed propaganda suggesting that the US has funded “bio-labs” inside Ukraine that are helping to develop bioweapons intended to “take out” the Russian people. This propaganda goes back as far as April 2021, so has been in the works for some time, and would serve to reinforce Kremlin messaging that the Ukrainian people represent an existential threat to Russia. It could also provide a casus belli to justify actions against the United States and NATO. There has also been intel chatter about the possibility of a false-flag dirty bomb against people in Russia, to be blamed on Ukraine.
- Russian State TV has suggested that Russia may use nuclear force against the US and NATO if Russia is excised from the world order. To quote directly: “Our submarines alone can launch more than 500 nuclear warheads, which guarantees the destruction of the US and NATO for good measure. The principle is: why do we need the world if Russia won’t be in it?”
My overall assessment is that there is every reason to expect Putin to escalate, as he is now cornered and feels he has nothing to lose. As a pariah already, and a cornered so-called “strongman,” his one fear is being perceived as weak or capitulating— yet he has no way to retreat now without appearing to have lost.
Therefore, it seems likely that he will seek ways to issue commands for escalation in the form of chemical weapons or nuclear strikes, placing him squarely in war criminal territory. This, of course will need to be executed through the military chain of command, and there is ample opportunity to refuse such orders as either illegal or insane. While Putin’s military is known to be sycophantic and loyal, these are humans with families, and it would seem that their reticence to destroy the planet would be greater than that of Putin.
There necessarily exists a growing anti-Putin faction in Russia, which will only be strengthened the more Putin threatens global destruction.
The best strategy for minimizing harm now would be for that faction to gain strength and remove Putin from power by any means necessary. For legitimacy, that needs to be done from inside Russia by Russians, as tempting as it might be for the CIA or other special operations forces to try to effect an assassination.
While Putin may in fact order nuclear strikes, there are significant enough possible points of interruption for that to not result in actual deployment. So assessment of risk and panic should be kept to a minimum, even as it is non-zero and higher than many may think.
It’s also outside of our control. People who are paid to mitigate and eliminate these risks are on the job and working overtime.
But we need to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time:
- Yes, it is possible that Putin will order the use of weapons of mass destruction,
- Yes, it is likely that those orders will not result in the deployment of nuclear weapons.
There is simply no good reason—respectability or otherwise—to pull back from consideration of worst case scenarios here. We must assume the worst and we must find a way to avert it regardless.
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