Op-ed: Putin’s failures on the battlefield offer the world an opportunity to step up efforts to help end the war in Ukraine

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The world is entering the moment of maximum danger – and at the same time of maximum opportunity – in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, now in its seventh month.

It is the moment of maximum danger because Putin has failed so dramatically in pursuing his delusional obsession — which prompted him to launch a major invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — that he was able to rebuild a modern idea of ​​the Russian Empire with Kiev at its center. and as his legacy.

As Ukraine’s courage and resilience turn its hubris into humiliation, the danger increases that it could turn to weapons of mass destruction, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, to coerce Ukraine and confuse its allies at a time when the influence of Putin is eroding and he’s running out of options.

This is a moment of maximum opportunity for world leaders at this week’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the first since Putin launched his war. It is an opportunity for US President Joe Biden, along with his European and Asian allies, to openly discuss the dangers Putin’s war poses to any country that cares about national sovereignty, to condemn Putin’s indisputable war atrocities and to the remaining witch hunters around the world who have neither condemned Putin nor supported sanctions against him.

Dishearteningly, instead of focusing on how best to stop Russia’s despot now and before winter wages, the UN is grappling with the technicalities of whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be able to speak via video link before this key meeting of world leaders . The good news is that members of the UN General Assembly voted 101 to 7, with 19 abstentions, to give the Ukrainians their podium.

Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, had gone to great lengths to block the speech. That’s no surprise, because when Zelenskyy spoke virtually to the Security Council in April, he told the group to act immediately for peace or to “dissolve” itself.

“We are dealing with a state turning the veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill,” he warned. Zelenskyy could not have been more prophetic in saying that if the UN didn’t stop Putin, for the future countries it would not be international law that would determine the future, but rather the law of the jungle.

There has been some speculation that the likelihood that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine — or order some other escalating action with chemical or biological means — has increased in crude proportion to the Russian despot’s mounting military setbacks on the ground.

Scenes from Ukraine this week of Russian soldiers – throwing their guns aside, fleeing the battlefield on bicycles and dropping their uniforms to disguise themselves as locals – were all part of a mosaic of failures

The spectacular implosion of Putin’s army in southern and eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have recaptured at least 2,320 square miles of territory, has given new life to rumors that Putin may have no way out of a losing war except through a self-destructing orphan. Hail Mary: Nuclear Weapons.

For a leader whose claim to leadership has always centered on his personal masculinity and political invulnerability, this growing perception of his military’s ineptitude and his own weakness jeopardizes his continued rule.

That, in turn, appears to prompt a rethink of both the handful of his allies and a larger group of countries — including India chief — as Putin learned this week at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand. Modi expressed concern about the war by publicly telling Putin that “the current era is not an era of war, and I spoke to you about this by phone.”

Putin’s meeting this week in Samarkand with Chinese President Xi Jinping also gave Putin no relief. Indeed, Putin may have begun to see the limits of what the two men had called their “no limits” relationship in a statement just before the Beijing Olympics and before Putin launched his war. “We understand your questions and concerns” about the war, Putin told Xi this week.

Personal survival remains the top priority for autocrats. For Putin, that must now be top of mind. What’s less clear is what would cause it. One possibility is the use of weapons of mass destruction and in particular tactical nuclear weapons.

While the risk to Putin would be huge, the world must be ready for this unforeseen event. The best way to do that would be to pre-empt him, deter him and be proactive rather than reactive, because the world knows his plot.

“I am afraid of [Putin’s Russia] will now retaliate in really unpredictable ways, and ways that could even involve weapons of mass destruction,” Rose Gottemoeller, a former NATO deputy secretary general, told the BBC this week.

What worries her is something increasingly important in the Kremlin’s strategy: tactical nuclear weapons that weigh a few kilotons or less — some with as little as one-fiftieth the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. Such weapons are not designed to reach Washington or Berlin, but rather to coerce or, as Gottemoeller puts it, “to make the Ukrainians capitulate in their terror.”

In a “Memo to the President” from the Atlantic Council this week, Matthew Kroenig attempts to answer the question of “how to deter Russian nuclear use in Ukraine — and respond if deterrence fails.”

“Such nuclear use,” Kroenig writes, “could further the Kremlin’s military goals, undermine American interests worldwide and cause a humanitarian catastrophe unseen since 1945. To deter such a potential disaster , the United States would publicly, deliberately vaguely negate any serious consequences for any Russian use of nuclear weapons and be prepared to continue conventional military strikes against Russian forces if the deterrent fails.”

It is also essential that the United States transmit this high-level message privately and guide the movement of relevant conventional forces into the area in a manner that underlines the seriousness of the US.

When world leaders gather in UNGA, it is hoped that they will use the opportunity they have to listen fully to Zelenskyy.

Ukraine’s ability to survive as an independent, sovereign and democratic state has far-reaching implications for the international community that the UN represents.

There are terrible dangers in the coming weeks. However, Putin’s failures on the battlefield and the increasing erosion of his international reputation present an opportunity to do the right thing: accelerate and ramp up all efforts to ensure Putin’s defeat and Ukraine’s defense.

If not now, when?

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.



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