Nuclear weapons could be used; Russia's war gets more dangerous
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and a Quick Take to kick off your week. I have to talk about Russia. There's plenty of news in the world. There's Brazil, there's United Kingdom, there's Iran, but no, Russia is the biggest story, and it's because we've just seen the worst week in the war in terms of escalation and danger that we've had since the initial invasion on February 24th. President Putin, after meeting with some of his closest remaining friends on the global stage, the Indian prime minister, the Chinese president, the Kazakh president, all telling him directly, "Hey, the war is a horrible idea. Please end this as soon as possible." Putin does exactly the opposite and escalates. Calls up a minimum of 300,000 additional troops in a mobilization, something he had been dragging his feet on and avoiding over the last months because he knew how unpopular it would be in Russia.
Putin also announcing annexation of four separate territories in Ukraine. By the way, territory he did not completely occupy at the time that he announced, the referenda the first time I think that's ever happened in history. But nonetheless, very clearly a significant escalation with the war in Ukraine, telling the Ukrainian people, "We are taking this land from you, you are not getting it back. We will consider it Russian territory and we will defend our territory to the death." Some 7 million people on the ground in these territories annexed some 15% of Ukrainian territory. Beyond that, we had pipelines that were suddenly sabotaged, Nord Stream 1 and 2. No hard evidence as to who is behind that, though all NATO members believe both publicly and privately that the Russian government engaged in that attack as a demonstration effect, kind of similar to what the Iranians did against Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia a few years ago. The largest refinery in that country saying, "We can do a lot more if you continue to behave to isolate us the way you have been."
And now of course, we also have the Ukrainians taking land back, significant counter offensives that had started a few weeks ago and are being extended in Kherson, in the south, just north of Crimea, as well as in Donetsk, part of the Donbas, which has been the focus of this second phase of Russia's special military operations. So what is all of this mean? Well, it means that Putin is increasingly really in a box. He's now announced to his own population, "We have taken this territory. We're fighting for it. It's ours. It's going to cause real sacrifice. It's going to mean that we're going to send your young men into the battlefield, and a lot of them are going to face injury and death."
The Russians don't have adequate weaponry to give them to fight this war. They don't have the time to adequately train them. Many are being sent to the front without either, and that means that they're going to continue to underperform. Though Russia can send a lot more people into the field in southeast Ukraine than the Ukrainians themselves can marshal in the near term. Meanwhile, more sanctions are coming from the West. The US, the UK have already announced some in response to the annexation. The EU will have a unanimous eighth round of sanctions later this month. No one is asking now, "Are the Europeans about to break?" Despite the fact that that's what everyone was asking a couple of weeks ago before these escalations. Whether it's the US, the UK, or the Europeans, at least for the coming months, what we're seeing is more aid for the Ukrainians, more weapons and intelligence for the Ukrainians, more willingness to do everything they can to help the Ukrainians fight and take as much land as possible before the Russians get enough troops in to defend territory and hold the line.
In other words, this is a full-fledged, not only proxy war, but increasingly has elements of a hot war between Russia and NATO. And perhaps the most disturbing piece of all of this is if you watch Putin's speech that he gave last week, or if you look at Russian state media, it is all about Russia losing land, losing in the battlefield because they're fighting NATO, because of everything NATO's doing. And so the willingness of the Russians to increasingly take the fight to NATO is growing. And of course, the more we see that, the more dangerous it gets, the greater the potential for this war to actually expand. I don't, as I mentioned, believe that we are close to a nuclear weapon actually being used in battle. But I recognize it's now possible, and I wouldn't have said that a couple of months ago. I'll tell you, after the Russian speech, after Putin speech announcing the annexations and the mobilization in the middle of the night, I woke up thinking about "The Day After", which I haven't thought about in decades.
This was a movie that some of you will remember. I saw it in high school and the next day we had a day off basically where all we did was talk to local leaders and civic leaders about what would happen if there was a nuclear war. I had nightmares for months. There's no way you can watch Putin rattling nuclear savers with his singular capability to have that finger on the button to say that he is prepared to do everything possible to defend land that he will lose and not be somewhat horrified that we could, again, for the first time since World War II see nuclear weapons used in battle. Everything possible has to be done to avoid that. And yet so far, the United States and Europe have done a fantastic job in punishing the Russians. They've done a fantastic job in supporting the Ukrainians, but they've done a really poor job at deterring Putin.
They haven't been able to change his behavior. They haven't stopped him from escalating on the ground in Ukraine. And of course, the more he does that, the greater the desperation. The economic desperation, the international desperation, the domestic political desperation, that is what we are increasingly seeing from Putin. At some point, Putin needs to not be humiliated, but he needs to recognize reality.
He needs to understand that the future of Russia is not in the occupation of Ukraine. And unless he's prepared to get that and he's making it harder and harder to get that on himself, then we are heading towards a much more dangerous confrontation even that we've seen since February. So that's where we are presently. I wish I had some better news for everyone. It's going to be a very tough winter, certainly for the Europeans, even more so for the Russians, and particularly for the Russians that are being sent to the front lines. I don't envy them at all, but I wish we could find a way to deescalate. Unfortunately, for now, that appears to be not in the cards.For more of Ian Bremmer's weekly analyses, subscribe to his GZERO World newsletter at ianbremmer.bulletin.com
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