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Is Vladimir Putin happy to risk nuclear war to avoid admitting defeat? – The Guardian

Russian leader’s escalatory threat to annex parts of Ukraine in effort to halt counteroffensive is fraught with risk
Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner in Ukraine. And true to form, the Russian leader is ready to escalate, perhaps up to the brink of nuclear war, rather than admit defeat.
Seven months after Putin launched his invasion, Russian troops have been driven back in the Kharkiv region, and Ukrainian forces are advancing in Luhansk and squeezing his troops and supply lines in Kherson.
It is not impossible that Russia could lose territories that it has held since 2014 if Putin’s forces cannot stop Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
Facing humiliation, Putin has issued a new threat: holding “referenda” in the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which could lead to them being annexed by Russia by early next week.
In the mind of Russia’s formalistic leader, that would turn the “special military operation” in Ukraine into a defensive war in Russia, opening up the possibility of a full mobilisation, declaration of war and even a nuclear strike.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the state-owned broadcaster RT and a vocal lobbyist for the war, said: “Judging by what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the threshold of our imminent victory or the threshold of a nuclear war. I can’t see any third option.”
There is little doubt that Russia’s plan – holding sham referenda to annex Ukrainian territories and threaten a massive military escalation – is just blackmail.
Ukrainians were quick to recognise it as an attempt to halt the counteroffensive. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say,” said Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister.
But since February, it has become clear that few actually understand the depths of the Kremlin’s mania over Ukraine or Putin’s willingness to waste the lives and welfare of Russians, as well as his own legacy, in order to exert his will over his neighbour.
The Kremlin’s strategy is fraught with risk. New annexations could further undermine Russian control over territories such as Crimea, by convincing Ukraine and the west that Moscow is delivering empty threats and reducing hesitation at retaking territory formally annexed by Russia.
So is the latest threat an ultimatum meant to save Russia from defeat? Or is Russia ready to go all the way?
Both are perhaps true. If Ukraine and western supporters blink (which is unlikely), Putin will be happy, analysts say. If not, well, whatever comes next is not our fault, the Kremlin thinks.
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Alexander Baunov, a Russian political analyst, wrote: “Moscow’s actions, therefore, are being taken to either end the war as soon as possible or, if that doesn’t work, to put the blame for that on other people and turn Russia’s invasion of a neighbouring country into a defensive war.
“Moscow hopes that that distinction will make the conflict more legitimate in the eyes of ordinary Russians, leaving the Kremlin free to make whatever decisions and take whatever measures it deems necessary.”
Putin has sometimes been called an expert in the strategy of “escalating to de-escalate” – averting conflict by threatening a massive retaliation.
But Putin does not seem to want to de-escalate. A more apt description of his strategy may be “win or escalate”. And as Simonyan puts it: Russia is going all in.