In the year 2022, there’s a lot out there to be scared about—the next COVID-19 variant, the news that we have a “brief and rapidly closing window” before parts of the earth are uninhabitable, etc.—but probably the most pressingly scary, in the hierarchy of things people are shitting their pants over right now, is the fact that the president of Russia is a power-hungry megalomaniac who harbors imperial ambitions, so much so that he decided to attack a neighboring country. The good news on that front is that (1) the rest of the world—including the famously “I don’t want to get involved!” Switzerland—is not down with Vladimir Putin’s plans, hitting Russia with crippling sanction after crippling sanction, and (2) Ukraine has been able to put up a much bigger fight than Putin expected. Obviously, these are welcome developments. The problem is, remember the part about him being a power-hungry megalomaniac? That type of person tends not to take failure in stride. Which brings us back to the bad news.
Per NBC News:
According to reporters Ken Dilanian, Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube, and Dan De Luce, Putin has been “lash[ing] out in anger at underlings” over how his military campaign is going and the “worldwide condemnation of his actions,” which he apparently didn’t see coming. Intelligence officials say those outbursts are unusual, as the former KGB agent is known to keep his emotions close to the vest. “This is somebody that’s clearly been caught off guard by the size of the Ukrainian resistance,” Senator Mark Warner, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC. “He has isolated himself. He’s not been in the Kremlin very much…. I do worry that he’s been backed into a corner. I do worry that there is no obvious exit ramp.”
While U.S. officials who spoke to NBC News said they do not believe Putin has become mentally unstable—a worrisomely low bar!—they are concerned about the fact that he “has displayed a different pattern of behavior from in the past.” As former CIA director John Brennan put it, “This was just such a bad, bad miscalculation on Putin’s part. He’s never faced something like this before. I’m sure he’s lashing out at advisers, ministers, and others—there may be an emotional spiral here. He’s suffered two black eyes, a bloody nose, and a series of punches. He is being crippled on the battlefield and the financial front, and he has no good options.”
People in emotional spirals tend not to think clearly, a situation made all the more concerning given Putin’s access to nuclear weapons and his threats to use them, which former U.S. National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill, an expert in Russian and European affairs, believes the world should be taking very seriously. In an interview with Politico, Hill was asked “how close” we are to a nuclear conflict, and if she really thought Putin would “use a nuclear weapon.” To which she responded: “Well, we’re right there. Basically, what President Putin has said quite explicitly in recent days is that if anybody interferes in Ukraine, they will be met with a response that they’ve ‘never had in [their] history.’ And he has put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. So he’s making it very clear that nuclear is on the table…. The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t? He’s already used a nuclear weapon in some respects. Russian operatives poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium and turned him into a human dirty bomb, and polonium was spread all around London at every spot that poor man visited. He died a horrible death as a result.”
At Axios, Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu note that the White House must now figure out how it can “give Vladimir Putin an off-ramp to avoid even greater calamity,” a great question for which no one appears, at this time, to have any answer.
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