Opinion

Putin raises the stakes

Russia's new czar is acting as if he expects an all-out war with the West. Is he just bluffing?

My mother's caregiver, Tamara, despises Vladimir Putin. She's a Georgian, and bitterly resents Russia's 2008 invasion of her home country and subsequent appropriation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Moscow's orbit. "That idiot Putin!" Tamara cries every time I visit my mom. Putin, she says, is determined to reconstitute as much of the Soviet Union as possible; now that he's carved off Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will also find excuses to invade and swallow the three Baltic states. "If no one stops him," she says, "that idiot will keep going. You'll see." I used to think Tamara's fears were exaggerated, and that the pain of strong sanctions and a crumbling economy would deter Putin from further predations. But he has actually stepped up his aggression, with Russian state media predicting a direct military confrontation with the West — and warning that Russia might defend itself with a first-strike nuclear attack.

Putin's behavior would seem to be unhinged — wholly detached from a rational cost-benefit analysis. But his actions become explicable if you assume that his only goals are the preservation of his autocratic power — and the glorious restoration of Russia as the U.S.'s fully equal rival. If ordinary Russians must go hungry as a result, well, national honor requires sacrifice. In Putin's mind and in Russia's state media, the "expansionist" West stole Ukraine and is already at war with Russia. If the U.S. sends heavy arms to bolster Ukraine's outgunned army, will Putin see it as a proxy invasion and send Russia's full army streaming across the border? And then what do we do? As for that threat of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons — surely that's just a bluff. Isn't it, Vlad?

More From...

Picture of William FalkWilliam Falk
Read All
The two-man space race
Jeff Bezos.
Opinion

The two-man space race

Authentic liberty
Vaccination.
Opinion

Authentic liberty

'Good speech' isn't winning
Mark Zuckerberg.
Opinion

'Good speech' isn't winning

What police reform requires
Newark.
Opinion

What police reform requires

Recommended

Delta variant has hit Israel, but health officials are optimistic
Israeli teen vaccinated
Vaccination Nation

Delta variant has hit Israel, but health officials are optimistic

Canada: At least 600 unmarked graves found at Indigenous boarding school
Indigenous graves in Canada
Oh Canada

Canada: At least 600 unmarked graves found at Indigenous boarding school

Biden administration plans to evacuate Afghans who assisted U.S. military
U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2006.
leaving afghanistan

Biden administration plans to evacuate Afghans who assisted U.S. military

Italian journalist reporting on missing toddler finds the boy
A helicopter flies over an Italian forest.
right place right time

Italian journalist reporting on missing toddler finds the boy

Most Popular

Cook called Pelosi with 'warning' about antitrust bills
Tim Cook
mr. cook calls washington

Cook called Pelosi with 'warning' about antitrust bills

7 toons about the Dems' Joe Manchin problem
Political Cartoon.
Feature

7 toons about the Dems' Joe Manchin problem

Bernie Sanders wants to know if cannabis reporter is 'stoned' right now
Bernie Sanders.
Sounds dope

Bernie Sanders wants to know if cannabis reporter is 'stoned' right now