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This is Putin's Last War, and He's Losing

In the Brezhnev era of Vladimir Putin’s youth, May 9 was an occasion for Soviet militarism, a celebration of weapons and might. It could be forgotten, at least for a moment, that Leonid Brezhnev’s war of choice would be fought and lost in Afghanistan less than two decades after he began the May 9 celebrations, much as what is likely Mr. Putin’s last war is today being fought and lost in Ukraine.

During both conflicts, people in the West worried, understandably, about nuclear war.

Today’s Russia issues an unending stream of nuclear threats. In the West today, unlike during the Cold War, these are discussed in psychological rather than strategic terms. How does Mr. Putin feel? How do we feel?

Americans’ fear of escalation delayed the supply of weapons that could have allowed Ukraine to win last year. One after the other, the weapons systems deemed escalatory have now been delivered, with no negative consequences. But the cost of delay can be observed in the Ukrainian territories that Russia still controls: the death pits, the torture chambers and the empty homes of kidnapped children. Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides have unnecessarily died.

In nearly 15 months of war, despite Russian nuclear propaganda and Western anxiety, there has been no use of nuclear weapons. This is an absence worthy of an explanation. Those who predicted escalation if Ukrainians resisted, if the West supplied weapons or if Russia suffered defeat have thus far been wrong. Strategic thinkers point to deterrence and note that nuclear use would not in fact bring a Russian victory. It would ensure a dramatic Western response and make Russian leaders pariahs. But there is a deeper explanation: Russia’s nuclear talk is itself the weapon.

It rests on false assumptions. Russian nuclear propaganda assumes that the bully always wins. But the bully does not always win. Russian propagandists want us to think that nuclear powers can never lose wars, on the logic that they could always deploy nuclear weapons to win. This is an ahistoric fantasy. Nuclear weapons did not bring the French victory in Algeria, nor did they preserve the British Empire. The Soviet Union lost its war in Afghanistan. America lost in Vietnam and in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Israel failed to win in Lebanon. Nuclear powers lose wars with some regularity.

Some Americans have proposed a nuclear scenario in which Russians will have to use nuclear weapons to head off defeat. But Russia has been defeated in Ukraine, on its own terms, again and again. What it has proved is its ability to change those terms after each defeat. Russia failed to achieve the explicit aim of the “special military operation” to overthrow Ukraine’s democratic government. There will be no greater humiliation than that. The defeat at Kyiv was followed by further defeats at Kharkiv and Kherson. Each loss led to cover stories from Russia’s state propagandists and their believers, to talk of good-will gestures, strategic withdrawals and so on. The escalation has been in the propagandists’ workload.

Read entire article at New York Times