Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically ramped up tensions Sunday when he ordered the military to put the country’s nuclear arsenal on high alert. Facing the combination of stiff Ukrainian resistance and Western sanctions that finally have some teeth, Putin chose to act in what Washington calls a “totally unacceptable” way.
The Russian President bemoaned “aggressive statements” by NATO for his decision to increase the readiness of nuclear weaponry, a move that caused immediate concern across the region. Even at the start of the Ukrainian invasion, Putin made a veiled nuclear threat to anyone who tried to interfere in the attack.
Meanwhile, US officials say the Russian incursion is not progressing at nearly the rate that Moscow anticipated, though that could change quickly with new tactics by the invaders.
Has Putin finally awakened a sleeping giant in the West with his ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine and orders that nuclear forces take a “special regime of combat duty?” Sanctions that were notably tepid at the start have suddenly grown sharp teeth, and even the private sector in the West is protesting with measures that will cumulatively damage the Russian economy perhaps severely.
How long will it take for Russia’s political leadership and the public to have had enough and remove Putin from power? Or kill him in a coup? His countryman, Vladimir Lenin, famously quipped, “Every society is three meals away from chaos.”
Even a cursory knowledge of Russian history, which Putin certainly has, tells him clearly how Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was unceremoniously dumped in the wake of his miscalculations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Would the Russian strongman prefer limited nuclear engagement to the ignominy of a failed attempt to overthrow a much smaller neighbor?
In the United States, some analysts point to the obvious that Putin is unstable, and it’s time to get serious about missile defense. Terms like “very unpredictable,” “unhinged” and “off the rails” dominated talk among former government leaders on the talk show circuit Sunday and now comes nuclear threats.
The Cold War’s end also signified the end of substantial progress toward President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, initiated in 1983 against the Soviet threat to the shrill derision of left-wingers who favored ostrich-like appeasement to preparedness.
But now we face an aging despot who is increasingly waving his nuclear sword as he attempts an Iron Curtain-like hegemony of his neighbors reminiscent of Stalin’s infamous “buffer zone.” It may be time to reconsider the strategic value of deterrence and emphasize actual defense.
“Cooler heads” do not always prevail, and the list of things Putin would not dare do has shortened considerably in recent days.