Staunton, April 14 – “Even the toughest authoritarian regime cannot operate on force alone,” Andrey Piontkovsky says, noting that the collapse of public support for Vladimir Putin and his regime means that the Kremlin leader is now considering what he must do to restore that support. Tragically, among the most probable options is the Russian use of nuclear weapons.
In an analysis to be published tomorrow (svoboda.org/a/29879125.html), the Russian commentator says that this outcome reflects the coming together of three things: the collapse of support for Putin and his regime, the unlikelihood that any other steps will win back support and allow him and it to survive, and the Kremlin’s view that the West will back down in such a confrontation before mutual annihilation.
“The entire political construction of Russia now hangs by the thin thread of the Putin myth,” Piontkovsky begins; but that myth has been largely dissipated by his pension reform policy. Nonetheless, Putin and those around him want “the banquet” to continue, especially as they recognize the growing chaos beneath their feet.
According to sociologists, he says, “the length of the interval between the demise of a structuring myth and social revolts is approximately a year.” That means that the situation in Russia could become go out of control by this fall, and that in turn, the Russian commentator continues, means that “decisions must be made already today.”
Some individual members of the Putin “elite” can simply leave the country, but neither the leader himself nor most around him have that option. “The ruling kleptocracy must find a strategy for transit after the death of the Putin myth,” and they must do so “here and now,” not over the next few years as many imagine.
Those around Putin could seek to remove him now that he has lost his magic, or more likely they and he could come up with some action that would restore the sense in the population that Putin is a miracle worker and thus deserves their support however angry they may be about his policies. Such “a reset” will require some “extraordinary means.”
Putin foresaw those possibilities at least as early as 2015, Piontkovsky says; and that is why he created the Russian Guard to protect himself against any effort to remove him. But he still has a problem. None of the steps some have suggested will restore his standing is likely to work.
“’Crimea is Ours’ already isn’t working,” and “neither the Anschluss of Belarus nor the annexation of the Donbass will generate enthusiasm,” the commentator says. Instead, they are likely to make Russians even more angry and suspicious. What Putin needs is something extraordinary that will “completely change the agenda.”
To remain on the Russian throne, he will have to “commit some bestial crime” that will force his opponents to avoid criticizing him lest they threaten the Russian state in the process. That is what Putin himself did in 1999 when he organized the explosions in the Russian apartment houses and then blamed the Chechens for it.
According to Piontkovsky, those who carried out those actions and especially the failed attempt in Ryazan did so with the cynical understanding that they not only could get away with this but would benefit: “’Yes, we were the ones who did this for victory in the elections. But you won’t be able to say that aloud … You will forever remain accomplices of our crime.”
And Putin was correct in that assumption: His opponents in Russia did not raise this issue and not simply out of cowardice but “out of statist, if you will, motives” because “there are issues which nations out of a sense of self-preservation avoid raising precisely because subconsciously they know the answer” and because that would “destroy the state.”
“To speak the truth about the apartment explosions would for the responsible politicians of the Russian Federation would be to declare aloud that ‘the Russian Federation doesn’t exist; there is only a band of criminals acting on a specific territory.” That is something they weren’t prepared to risk.
“Twenty years have passed,” Piontkovsky continues, but Putin has not changed and his calculations are the same. He needs to commit a crime of such horrific dimensions that Russians at least in his entourage will have no ability to dissent from it lest they challenge the existence of the Russian state itself.
His current “Putin Plan of Victory,” the Russian commentator says, has been taking shape at least since the start of 2014 and now involves the use of nuclear weapons against the West, a plan Piontkovsky says many find “paradoxical” but that has real chances for success in keeping Putin and his regime in power.
Unlike the West which believes that any use of nuclear weapons will escalate into mutual annihilation and that therefore neither side will start that process, Putin is convinced that he can and indeed in the current situation must fight a limited nuclear war, one in which the West will blink first and back down, giving him the victory he needs.
“The Kremlin rulers are convinced that victory in the fourth world war will come to them” not via some new super weapons but rather by “a more refined and bold strategy of the use of existing weapons” in which psychological factors can yield a victory for Russia against the West.
To say that the Kremlin is now contemplating the use of nuclear weapons is not to say that it has put as its goal “the physical destruction of the hated US.” Any attempt at doing so would inevitably lead to the mutual destruction that has constrained both sides for a long time, Piontkovsky continues.
Rather, the Kremlin “agenda” is “significantly more modest: the broadest possible extension of ‘the Russian world,’ the breaking apart of NATO given the incapacity of the US to fulfill its obligations under Article Five of the Charter, the discrediting of the US as the guarantor of the security of the West and the humiliating exit of the West from world history.”
Piontkovsky says the Kremlin strategy anticipates the following course of developments. Russia will use conventional forces to attack a country linked to the US such as one of the Baltic countries. Moscow will enjoy initial success but then lose as NATO brings its conventional forces to bear raising the prospect of a Russian defeat.
To prevent that, the Russian analyst says, Moscow will then employ what one Russian military expert has called “de-escalation through nuclear escalation” (nvo.ng.ru/concepts/2015-11-27/1_stairway.html), demanding that NATO stop opposing the Russian advance and then launching one or two nuclear strikes at targets in Europe if the West refuses.
At present, the Kremlin is convinced that faced with that prospect, NATO will back down, giving Putin the victory he needs. That is all the more likely, the Moscow rulers believe, because if NATO did launch a limited attack on Russia, Russia would respond with a massive attack on the United States.
According to Piontkovsky, the Kremlin is “absolutely convinced” that won’t be necessary because the West will blink first to avoid Armageddon. The possibility that Putin might take that course has been clear for the last five years, he continues, but several factors have increased the probability of such a conflict.
“The death of the Putin myth has changed the time horizons of the plan,” bringing them far nearer, he argues. Moscow has been deploying forces in various places to show that it won’t back down and daring the West to respond forcefully, something the West hasn’t done. And Putin controls the nuclear weapon – and believes he can and must use it.
The recent comments of three people with contacts in the Kremlin, Aleksey Venediktov, Valery Solovey, and Grigory Yavlinsky, all confirm that a real catastrophe is ahead and that Putin and his team are scrambling to figure out what to do. The nuclear option is clearly on the Kremlin’s table, a major reason for their concern and for the concern of everyone else.
Piontkovsky ends his essay with a postscript: Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid will be in Moscow to meet with Putin later this week. She has just come back from Washington where quite possibly she met with President Donald Trump’s “foreign policy guru,” Newt Gingrich,” the former speaker of the House of Representatives.
Gingrich has said in the past that “Estonia is the backyard of St. Petersburg, and I do not intend to risk a nuclear war with Russia for it.” Such words must be music to the Kremlin’s ears and certainly make it more rather than less likely that he will go forward with a nuclear-based “Putin Plan of Victory.”