Ukraine’s Gains, Putin’s Threats

Putin once again threatens nuclear catastrophe.
Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2020 (CNS photo/Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

There was a lot of good news for Ukraine in mid-September, seven months after Russia’s invasion. Ukraine re-seized sizable amounts of territory in the North as demoralized Russian forces fled, and it was pushing a counteroffensive in the South. It got an indirect diplomatic boost from two of Russia’s strategic partners: President Xi Jinping of China, whose statement on the need for stability was read as displeasure with Vladimir Putin, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who expressed the sentiment more explicitly soon after. It was set to receive another $600 million in U.S. defense aid. And it got a papal blessing of sorts, as Pope Francis acknowledged that it is morally acceptable for countries to send arms to Ukraine so that it can defend itself from Russia, which the pope, after some hesitation, is now willing to call the “aggressor.”  

With every advance against Russia, and with every new revelation of Russian atrocities, Ukrainians become more unified, and more hopeful that victory is at hand. Morale and motivation are high even as President Volodymyr Zelensky cautions against excessive optimism. Meanwhile, questions asked since the war began are no closer to being answered now. What exactly does a Ukrainian victory look like? Would it require retaking Crimea? How would neighboring countries, the continent, and the rest of the world live with a defeated Russia—or a humiliated Putin?  

With every advance against Russia, and with every new revelation of Russian atrocities, Ukranians become more unified, and more hopeful that victory is at hand.

Soon after Ukraine’s September gains, the world got a fresh reminder of what Russia is capable of. The bodies of more than four hundred Ukrainian civilians, some bearing signs of torture, were discovered in a mass grave in Izium. Cruise missiles struck a dam and a power plant, unleashing floods and knocking out power in Kharkiv and elsewhere. A smirking Putin went before cameras to characterize these strikes as warnings and threatened further escalation. “We are responding rather restrainedly, but that’s for the time being,” he said. He’s likely to rain further destruction on civilian populations, and there’s concern he’ll strike supply sites in Poland and Romania in hopes of provoking a NATO response. Worse: in a videotaped speech, he accused the United States and Europe of nuclear blackmail and issued another threat: “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction.” Putin already demonstrated his willingness to risk nuclear catastrophe when Russian troops in control of the Zaporizhzhia reactor disconnected it from the power grid over the summer and brought it to the verge of meltdown. More recently a Russian missile exploded within 900 feet of another Ukrainian reactor

According to a 2003 New Yorker article by David Remnick, Putin developed his ambition by reading spy thrillers as a student; he told interviewers in 2000 that what “amazed me most of all is how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not.” This seems worth keeping in mind especially now, as his armies have not been able to achieve what he wants. Near the end of September Putin also called for referendums in four Russian-occupied territories as a pretense for annexing them into Russia—the same move he made in Crimea in 2014. Hours after Putin’s nuclear threat on September 21—International Peace Day—President Biden addressed the UN and vowed to stand against Russia’s “imperial ambitions.” Despite Ukraine’s September gains, it’s hard to see the war ending anytime soon.

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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