Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, it seems to me, is currently in isolation and exile. While he still enjoys steady domestic support, his foreign visits are limited to something like Turkmenistan, these days. Putin has backed himself into a corner on the international arena. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO, Ukraine remains defiant, and there is no neat victory he can present his populace with. Thus, he has no choice but to resort to a series of tricky balancing acts. Putin is reduced to claiming that his war aim has always been the "liberation" of Donbas, without explaining why that necessitated attempting to subjugate Kyiv and northern Ukraine.
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It looks like he now finds himself facing something he wasn't mentally prepared for - a tepid and vague strategic defeat.
Sure, he could still conquer Lysychansk and maybe even another hardly significant town. That will be hailed as a triumph, since it's now clear that nabbing Odesa or Mykolayiv is not in the cards, meaning he won't get the coveted land bridge to Transnistria. All he can do now is rain down missiles on Ukrainian cities, turning them to rubble.
Those who share Putin's values, interpret this approach as resolve, decisiveness, and even triumph. Others are starting to doubt the official party line. Notably, more and more Russian security officials are beginning to doubt their duce. We all remember the recent "goodwill gesture" of abandoning the Snake (or Zmiinyi) Island by Russian Defense Ministry.
Even Putin's most ardent sycophants are expressing their discontent, as seen on RusNext (the most unhinged, jingoistic Russian pro-Soviet website): Putin is labeled an incompetent wimp in many of the comments there.
It's no wonder that a St. Petersburg street urchin's first instinct is to flee at first sign of resistance to bullying. Everyone knows that you fled from a fight, no matter how much you try to spin as anything other than cowardice.
Putin is clearly in dire straits, and it's probably getting worse. Therein lies the danger of him reaching for nukes out of desperation to save face. Eventually, these impulses could materialize into action. Losing the war will be Putin's demise - and short of resorting to nukes, he will lose. He is also convinced that his defeat means Russia's demise. He has already said that nukes could be used if Russia is facing an existential threat. An existential threat to Putin is an existential threat to Russia - or so he thinks. "There is no Russia without Putin," Speaker of the Russian parliament Vyacheslav Volodin famously said.
Twenty years ago, Russian military doctrine ruled out a nuclear first strike.
Now, it says the ultimate weapon can be deployed if Russia is facing an existential threat - a rather vague concept, open to interpretation. As Russia is soundly losing the competition for an attractive socio-economic model, economic development, stable currency, and technological advances, nuclear weapons are its only tool at staving off impending collapse. That's the only realm where Moscow can claim to be a peer of great powers.
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Strategically, Putin has already lost. That's what I think, at least. Countries would be gravitating towards Russia out of their own volition if Putin fostered a peaceful, competitive model for his country. Instead, we observe everyone running away from Russia - as best as they can: the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia - the entire European part of the Soviet empire. That's because regular people and elites in those countries realize that the Western model is superior.
What is Putin to do then, after losing the contest so soundly? A reasonable leader would admit defeat and resign. The one we're stuck with opted instead to try and claim what he thinks belongs to Russia, by force. "We'll make you be our friends," but even that's not working out.
The Kremlin overlord is powerless in his attempts to get Ukraine back in line. And that's very humiliating for him. After all, Russia is much larger and more powerful militarily - or at least that used to be the conventional wisdom. It turns out though that the Russian military might is as fictitious as its economic power. As a result, Putin is waging a war of revenge on Ukraine. If he had a way to somehow bring Ukraine into Russia's orbit, there would be little sense in systematically obliterating Ukrainian cities. He is simply punishing, terrorizing the country, seeking to demonstrate "who wears trousers in this house." Putin's Russia has degraded to operating in mob terms, dividing the world into "alphas and suckas," as his entourage would say.