PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin’s defiance of the world peaked on September 30 with his annexation of four more Ukrainian regions after sham referendums, an act that was condemned by the United Nations and the free world. Days earlier, he had warned Ukraine and the international community:“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened…we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” adding, “it’s not a bluff.” The World should not buckle at the implied nuclear weapons blackmail but continue to push back at Putin’s megalomania.
A flawed superpower, Russia under Putin is threatening the entire world order, and the possibility of a Third World War, once thought far-fetched, is now being mooted by diplomats. After its invasion of Ukraine in February and the economic disruptions it triggered in a world struggling to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia is digging in through illegal annexations and threats to deploy nuclear weapons.
Its theft ofDonetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kerson regions after hasty shambolic “referendums” violated international law in every respect. As expected, Russia’s rubberstamp parliament, subservient as ever to Putin, duly approved the incorporation. Russia had similarly annexed Crimea in 2014.
Both the annexations and the threats to use nuclear weapons are reckoned by statesmen and security experts to be acts of desperation. The myth of an unstoppable Russian military juggernaut has evaporated on the battlefield.Whereas Putin and his generals, andeven Western security experts, had expected Russian troops to overcome Ukraine within a month, the conflict has stretched to seven months and the invaders have suffered humiliating reverses.
Putin is on the back foot. His carefully cultivated macho image of a winner and strategist has suffered at home and abroad. Desperate, and armed with the world’s second most powerful military, and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and with no effective domestic institutional rail guards, Putin is a dangerous loose cannon.
His latest tactic is to create a pretext for a general mobilisation of the Russian people by rallying them to defend an imaginary invasion of Russia when Ukraine attacks invaders and pro-Russian rebels in the “annexed” regions. Using this same logic of “defending the homeland,” he says using nuclear weapons is legitimate.
The hollowness of the annexations was evident on the ground; as Moscow formalised incorporation, Zaporizhzhia’s provincial capital and over 40 per cent of Donetsk were under the control of Ukraine’s intrepid military forces, which have been recapturing occupied territory. Unable to subdue Ukraine through conventional forces, he is waving the nuclear option.
But the United States National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, has warned of “catastrophic consequences for Russia” if it crosses that red line, emphasising that the US“will respond decisively.”
“World peace is in jeopardy,” stated the European Union’s Head of Foreign Policy, Josep Borrel.“Threatening with nuclear weapons is unacceptable and a real danger to all.”This unassailable fact is underlined by the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Use of Nuclear Weapons, a legally binding instrument of the world body.
Under the treaty, which was adopted in July 2017 and came into force in January 2021, no member state is to“use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.” For Putin however, accustomed to tearing up international pacts, this counts for nothing. He and Lavrov have, from the commencement of the aggression against Ukraine, repeatedly threatened nuclear attack against any country that meddles in the conflict.
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The world is thus confronted with a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council that has become an international outlaw, repeatedly flouting UN resolutions, treaties, and the conventions of war. He has ignored the UN General Assembly ResolutionES-11/1 of March 2 directing Russia to“immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders.”
He similarly brushed aside a ruling on March 16 by the International Court of Justice that Russia “immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on February 24.” Instead, the Russian military intensified bombardment of Ukrainian territory, levelling schools, hospitals, residential estates, public buildings, and critical infrastructure, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
An unprecedented mix of economic and diplomatic sanctions, as well as exclusion from major international sporting tournaments,have not yet yielded the anticipated deterrence, but have compounded economic problems for Russians and the rest of the world.
In the present circumstances, the global community has few options left outside the potentially deadly path the US and its NATO and EU allies have signalled.
China could help defuse the Putin ordnance. As the only country that still has some leverage with Russia, it can make a difference by constructive engagement with the belligerent nation, and by refraining from open endorsement of Moscow’s military adventurism.President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party need to rise above their ongoing rivalries with the US and NATO and their preoccupation with China’s own geostrategic calculations, notably reunification with Taiwan and control of the South China Sea.No one gains from a nuclear war; and once hostilities escalate beyond Ukraine, their course and outcome are unpredictable.
In October 1962, during the Cold War, the world averted a nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis when the US and the defunct Soviet Union nearly came to blows after the USSR deployed ballistic missiles in Cuba. Wise counsel and the temperance of President John Kennedy and Soviet Leader, Nikita Khrushchev, saved the day.
Putin lacks the temperament, and restraint expected of a global statesman and UNSCpermanent member. Pressure at home manifested by some provincial and local officials, and anti-war mass protests across scores of Russian cities, have been met with strong repressive measures; arrests, detention, and prosecution.
Putin should be persuaded that using Russia’s nuclear stockpile–nearly 6,000 warheads–is not an option. Size and quality of weaponry do not guarantee military success, say experts and its consequences, including for Russia, are unpredictable.
This war must be stopped. The West should escalate its sanctions. China, cognisant of its role in the global economy, its own slowing growth, and its long-term interests, should break from Putin to complete his isolation and pressure him to pull out his troops. The US, NATO and the EU should continue to support Ukraine’s resistance and join the UN to seek a quick resolution through intensified diplomacy. ,
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