‘He’s not going to scare us’: Why the West isn’t buying Putin’s bluster
“He’s not going to scare us or intimidate us,” President Joe Biden said of Putin. “Putin’s actions are a sign that he is struggling, the bogus referendum he staged and his routine he set up…the United States will never recognize that, and quite frankly, the world won’t recognize it either.”
Leaders across Europe read the same playbook, pledging to support Ukraine and punish Russia for breaking international law by trying, again, to steal Ukrainian territory.
Britain’s Chief of Defense Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, speaking to reporters on Friday during a visit to Washington, called annexation “Putin’s invented reality, and the real reality is that he declared these four territories as part of Russia, but he does not even have control of these four territories.
The swift rejection of Putin’s annexation announcement and his hints that he might use nuclear weapons show how much the global perception of his military and its competence has changed since the start of the war. His once-feared reputation has been so damaged by his disastrous invasion that the threats he used for so long to shape the geopolitical narrative no longer have the power they once did.
Moscow has faced a torrent of setbacks and humiliations since the Ukrainians launched their two-pronged counteroffensive this month. Rapid gains through modern NATO-supplied weaponry forced massive, panicked Russian retreats around the city of Kherson, pushing Russian forces back into their own country or into several shrinking pockets inside Ukraine.
The forecast for Russian forces over the next few weeks and months is equally bleak, as poorly trained conscripts head to the front to face battle-hardened Ukrainians backed by new Western equipment, with new shipments arriving. every week.
Videos have emerged online of Russian officers telling conscripts to bring their own medical supplies and sleeping bags to the front because Moscow is expected to leave its troops without support on the ground.
“Russia does not have enough personnel to equip the equipment it has,” Radakin said. “The equipment they have is quite extensive, but much of it is old and in poor condition. So what [Putin] had to go through this partial mobilization… then you start to see a feature of this mobilization, it’s not people rushing to recruiting offices, it’s people rushing out of the country.
A senior Defense Ministry official, who like others in this story, requested anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said there had been no significant movement of Russian forces before or after the Putin’s speech on Friday, further suggesting that nothing at all has changed on the ground, at least in favor of the Kremlin.
In fact, Russian troops in the town of Lyman in Donetsk Oblast – an area Putin said on Friday was now part of Russia – were almost completely surrounded by Ukrainian forces who cut off supply lines from the garrison. On Friday, Ukrainian commanders began calling in Russian forces to negotiate a surrender.
Lyman has for months been a key logistics and supply hub for Russian forces fighting in the east of the country, and its loss would further cripple already stretched Russian supply lines in areas increasingly contested by Ukrainian forces. .
The continued loss of territory that Russia now claims as its own, along with new sets of sanctions announced Friday by the United States and the United Kingdom, will further reduce the Kremlin’s ability to wage war and undermine the ability to the army to stand firm.
“Russia will struggle to hold the territory it claims to have annexed,” the Institute for the Study of War said in an analysis Friday. “Putin probably intends annexation to freeze the war along the current front lines and allow time for Russian mobilization to rebuild Russian forces.”
The institute, along with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, also generated a map on Friday showing that the four territories slated for annexation actually include large swaths of land still under Ukrainian control.
While leaders have warned that declaring the territories part of Russia could serve as a pretext to escalate the war, Putin’s options are just as limited as they were before his announcement.
Ukraine has hobbled Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and ship captains are now avoiding the coastline for fear of being hit by missiles. The Russian Air Force generally avoids flying over Ukrainian airspace, and the Kremlin is woefully short of allies willing to enter the conflict. This leaves his ground force, which he now stores with untrained conscripts.
And even though Putin and other Russian officials have hinted at the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, the United States assesses the likelihood as low. “We haven’t seen anything that indicates we should change our posture,” a senior DoD official said.
A European diplomat pointed out that Russian warnings against attacking annexed territories ring hollow, and not just because Putin is already losing ground in those areas.
“Ukraine has repeatedly hit Russian targets in Crimea, and Putin has not responded even though he claims Crimea is now part of Russia,” the diplomat said.
And more and more Western weapons are heading to Ukraine. At the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted the $1.1 billion weapons package announced this week, “and we expect to have another announcement of immediate security assistance to announce. next week”.
The package will be worth several hundred million dollars, an administration official confirmed to POLITICO.
Aid withdrawal allows Ukraine to absorb deliveries of tens of thousands of artillery shells, radars and armored vehicles, but also maintains ‘psychological impact’ of regular package announcement of NATO-caliber weapons to bolster Ukrainian allies and depress the morale of Russian forces and leadership, the official said.
Putin is trying to boost morale, but his Friday bluster is little more than a “fiction” of Russia’s strength and competence, Radakin said. He warned against overreacting.
This fiction “is a feature of the weakness and the pressure Russia is under,” he said. “We have to be very careful in responding to fictions.”
Lara Seligman contributed to this report