Talking Points

Putin's nightmare

How Russia’s reckless czar is making his worst fears come true

​​Vladimir Putin has a recurring nightmare. The treacherous West undermines his grip on Russia, ambitious rivals stage a coup, and the rabble drag him from the Kremlin and beat him to death in the same humiliating way Libyans disposed of dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. In his book All the Kremlin's Men, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar reported that Putin was "apoplectic" when his fellow strongman was killed; William Burns, the director of the CIA, writes in his book The Back Channel that Putin was obsessed with the gruesome video of Qaddafi's killing. Russia's czar thought he could insulate himself from that fate only through ruthless aggression and the promotion of a rabid, quasi-religious Russian nationalism. But his overreaction to his deepest fears has managed to create the conditions for them to come true. As Ukrainian soldiers armed with Western weapons drive Putin's dispirited, dysfunctional army back toward Russia's borders, it's looking grim for Vladimir Vladimirovich. 

Cornered, Putin is falling back on nuclear blackmail. (See Main Stories, p.4.) Is he bluffing? No one can be sure, but his use of a tactical nuclear weapon would carry an enormous cost. Violating the nuclear taboo would alienate China and India and fully isolate Russia as a pariah state. It would likely trigger a massive, conventional military response from NATO forces that would destroy what's left of Russia's army in Ukraine and sink its Black Sea naval fleet. In Russia, there is already growing public criticism of the failing war effort amid rumors of a palace coup. (See International columns, p.15.) If the military chain of command refused Putin's nuclear order out of self-preservation, his authority would vanish in an instant. Cue the Qaddafi video. The war may go on for months, through a bitter winter, but Putin cannot win it; he's steadily losing the land his atrocities and war crimes have soaked in blood. Sooner or later, he will reap what he has sown.

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.