27 February 2022. Endless hours of BBC and CNN, on the 4th day since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The commentators seem to be converging on the following analysis:
- Putin is surprised by the intensity of the Ukrainian resistance, both by its army and its civilian corps.
- His prime objective was clearly a decapitation strategy: to capture Kyiv and install a puppet government along the lines of Belarus, then deal with the rest of the country later, however …
- The Russian military has made a rather botched incursion after all with tenuous and collapsing supply lines.
- Also, Putin is very surprised by the extent and seriousness of Western sanctions and this must be unnerving him, especially because …
- Putin is now becoming very worried about the growing protests at home.
- Putin’s activation of a crisis-level of nuclear readiness, therefore, is a kind of posturing even if it reflects an emerging desperation in his own mind due to points 1 through 5.
SPECTER OF NUCLEAR ESCALATION
Historically, when use of nuclear weapons is mentioned, it is usually accompanied by dismissive, disclaiming words such as “unthinkable.” Unfortunately, what is “unthinkable” has been shown to have, in fact, been thought by whoever asserts its unthinkability. What is missing in our comfort with nuclear war being unthinkable is a lack of distinction in at least two areas.
First, there is the unanswered question of whether Russia’s new contingent of hypersonic nuclear warheads fundamentally destabilizes the mutual assured destruction (MAD) that has kept the world from going up in flames since the 1950s. It appears from unclassified sources that these hypersonic missiles are so fast that they can indeed elude radar, eliminating the capacity to know that they are coming or defend against them with existing missile defense systems. Despite these advanced technologies, targeting the EU or the US would still result in a catastrophic nuclear retaliation since not all response capacity could be eliminated at once.
Perhaps more worrying is the important distinction between the massive, city-incinerating weapons that we associate with “nuclear” as opposed to Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW), which are much smaller in explosive power and could be launched in a variety of ways—from a plane or sub, on a cruise missile, or even by artillery. They have never been used in practice, and in the late 1980s many were decommissioned due to concerns they could too easily lead to all-out nuclear war. The majority of these TNWs, upwards of 2000, are held in Russia’s arsenal. These weapons could be used to target military bases, concentrations of opposition forces, small cities, or sections of large cities.
1. Putin is surprised by the intensity of the Ukrainian resistance, both by its army and its civilian corps.
Ukraine has been fully penetrated by Russian operatives since its independence, both spies as such and those insinuated into a pan-Slavic criminal network of ruthless oligarchs. At the same time, the increase in arms to the Ukrainian army has been quite transparent, especially since the 2014 Donbas and Crimea annexations. Indeed, one US president was impeached over a controversy surrounding when and how much aid to send. The increased capacity of the Ukrainian military should have come as no surprise whatsoever to Putin, or to the international intelligence community. Similarly, the development of a decentralized civilian corps in Ukraine has been one of its explicit goals since 2014. How else were those cases of military rifles so conveniently ready to be handed out? Indeed, as the self-proclaimed seer of the Slavic soul, Putin would have understood very clearly how intransigent would be the tribal pride and loyalty of the Ukrainian people.
2. Putin’s prime objective was clearly a decapitation strategy to capture Kyiv and install a puppet government along the lines of Belarus and deal with the rest of the country later, however …
3. The Russian military has made a rather botched incursion after all with tenuous and collapsing supply lines.
4. Also, Putin is very surprised by the extent and seriousness of Western sanctions and this must be unnerving him, especially because …
5. Putin is now becoming very worried about the growing protests at home.
No-fly zones, SWIFT restrictions, unprecedented flows of arms coming from the EU—this is all very dramatic. But is it remotely plausible that any of these were not alluded to during the several months of negotiations between high-ranking officials, not to mention the private conversations between Putin and Biden, Macron, Johnson, Sholz and others? No, these details would come only as surprises to the rest of the world that had not been privy to the confidential discussions, certainly not to Putin. These potential countermoves were all most likely factored in from the beginning. After all, US President Biden and US Secretary of State Blinken had warned over and over in the months leading up to the invasion that Russia would face sanctions unlike anything ever seen before were they to invade Ukraine.
Nor is it plausible that he wouldn’t have expected a few thousand people in a country of 144,000,000 to protest military aggression. People have gone to the streets against him before, and in larger numbers. Since the start of the invasion, he has already arrested around six thousand people and, be sure, the leaders among them will be kept out of action and in prison for a long time.
We would like to believe that Putin has faltered and over-reached, not expecting the blowback that Russia is experiencing. But this wish also belies some projected humanitarian sense that the plight of the average Russian would register in significance to him. That represents potentially very dangerous miscalculations. Recall that Putin has framed his justification for the invasion in three main ways. First, as a response to an existential threat from the West. This one is clearly false, but presents some cover for the underlying emotional complex associated with the second justification, namely that the West has humiliated Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union—the “greatest catastrophe,” he says, of the last century. Finally, he claims to be compelled to have launched this “special military operation” in order to protect the Russian diaspora in Ukraine from genocide.
6. His activating of a crisis-level of nuclear readiness, therefore, is a kind of posturing that probably reflects an emerging desperation in his own mind.
We in the West would like to believe that this is posturing in the same way that we wanted to believe Putin wouldn’t invade Ukraine further at all, let alone attempt a whole nation’s conquest. But here is a man who has become so isolated in his own paranoid/grandiose bubble, apparently fancying himself a Napoleonic figure riding above mortal limits on the steed of history. Putin’s overarching goal is to establish a new world order, clearly one involving the rule of the strongest. What better way to demonstrate that he is the strongest than to be willing to do what to all the rest is unthinkable?
STEPHEN SETTERBERG, MD
Dr Stephen Setterberg is Publisher of Stillpoint Magazine. He is a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist who founded and developed the PrairieCare system of clinics and hospitals for children and adolescents in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. While later training in Zurich to become a Jungian analyst, Stephen co-founded Stillpoint Spaces, a forum for psychologically-minded individuals of diverse cultural and educational backgrounds to utilize insights from psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and related fields, with centers in Berlin, London, Paris, and Zurich. He also co-directs Confer, a UK organization first established by psychotherapists in 1998 to provide interdisciplinary continuing education for psychotherapists, psychologists, and other mental health workers.