Putin's 'Enemy' Isn't Ukraine or NATO -- It's the West
Putin keeps escalating because he thinks the West will collapse
The purpose of Russian leader Vladimir Putin's September 30 speech was ostensibly to mark the signing of treaties to recognize the illegal annexation of four regions of Southern and Eastern Ukraine. But it wasn't really about that. If you knew little about the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhiya, and Kherson regions before -- and in contrast to Crimea, they're not well-known inside Russia -- you would not have learned much more about them at the end of his 37-minute address. Nor was the speech really about Ukraine or NATO -- he repeated old lies about a "neo-Nazi coup" in Ukraine and mentioned NATO once.
Instead, it was a declaration of war against the West. He called the West the "enemy." He repeated a familiar line that the West was looking to destroy Russia. But then quickly went into unhinged territory, declaring that the West is ready to "cross every line to preserve the neo-colonial system which allows it to live off the world" and railed against the "totalitarianism, despotism and apartheid" of the West. In the Kremlin's ornate St. George's Hall in front of hundreds of officials, he repeated menacing conspiracy theories, saying the West undertakes "development of biological weapons, experiments on living people, including in Ukraine" and puts "entire nations on drugs." He also threw in some criticisms of gender and homosexuality: railing against the "overthrow" of "traditional values," he said that the "dictatorship of Western elites" were trying to bring about "a 'religion in reverse' -- pure Satanism." And so on.
It's hard to analyze the specifics of this speech, because so much of it is nonsensical -- sort of like trying to make sense of a person ranting on a street corner. But as with the person on the street corner, you can often tell broadly what they're angry about. What is crystal clear is that Putin sees himself at war with the West. That means that any possible concessions on Ukraine or NATO would not likely satisfy Putin, as some Western pundits have argued.
The simple reason that Putin keeps escalating in Ukraine is that he thinks that the West will eventually collapse. The collapse of the West would mean the end of NATO, weakening of the European Union, and the erosion of Western democracies. Having witnessed the collapse of the once-mighty Soviet empire up close in East Germany in 1989, Putin has a belief that the West will collapse as the Soviet Union did. In the past few years, Donald Trump's election, his subsequent attacks on the NATO alliance, and Britain's exit from the European Union could have augured a possible collapse.
However, since February, the West has been united in its support for Ukraine. After Putin's speech, the United States announced that it would be giving more aid to Ukraine next week. The United States and United Kingdom announced more sanctions on Russian officials and companies. Meanwhile, the Russian army continues to lose ground on the battlefield, retreating from the key rail hub of Lyman. Putin's "partial" mobilization has resulted in hundreds of thousands of men fleeing the country or desperately trying to get to a border.
Putin's best hope would be a cold winter amid tight gas supplies, causing a government or two in Europe to call for an end to sanctions. Italy's new right-wing prime minister, Georgia Meloni, has been supportive of Ukraine and NATO, but her coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, have been sympathetic to Putin. Were Italy to join Hungary and form an anti-sanctions coalition, it could spell trouble for the West. So far, that threat hasn't materialized; and appetite for Russian gas may even be less likely after sabotage -- believed by the United States to have come from Russia -- caused multiple leaks in the Nordstream pipeline. (The opening of a new gas pipeline between Norway and Poland was overshadowed by Russian sabotage fears.)
What happens if the West stays firm and Putin keeps escalating in Ukraine? Many in the West and Russia think Putin could use tactical nuclear weapons to defend the newly annexed territories, as he has threatened. U.S. officials repeated on September 30 that there were no signs of him getting ready to do so. But in his third major address since the start of the war, Putin mentioned that the United States had used nuclear weapons twice in Japan, and said: "They created a precedent."
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