A Desperate Vladimir Putin Adopts Richard Nixon’s Madman Theory

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger concocted the Madman Theory of threatening excessive force, which included the specter of nuclear force in Vietnam. Nixon’s Nuclear Specter – The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War:

In their initial effort to end the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger attempted to lever concessions from Hanoi at the negotiating table with military force and coercive diplomacy. They backed up their diplomacy toward North Vietnam and the Soviet Union with the Madman Theory of threatening excessive force, which included the specter of nuclear force. They began planning for a massive shock-and-awe military operation referred to within the White House inner circle as DUCK HOOK.

The initial DUCK HOOK concept included proposals for tactical nuclear strikes against logistics targets and ground incursions into the North. In early October 1969, however, Nixon aborted planning for the long-contemplated operation, having been influenced by Hanoi’s defiance in the face of his dire threats and concerned about U.S. public reaction, antiwar protests, and internal administration dissent. In place of DUCK HOOK, Nixon and Kissinger launched a secret global nuclear alert in hopes that it would lend credibility to their prior warnings and perhaps even persuade Moscow to put pressure on Hanoi. The risky gambit failed to move the Soviets, but it marked a turning point in the administration’s strategy for exiting Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger became increasingly resigned to a long-route policy of providing Saigon with a decent chance of survival for a decent interval after a negotiated settlement and U.S. forces left Indochina.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with a “special military operation” force has been one of the spectacular failures of the Russian military, almost on par with its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989).

Putin is now doubling-down, unable to accept defeat in Ukraine and to withdraw. Putin is taking a page out of Nixon’s playbook, adopting his madman theory by threatening the West with nuclear war.

The Washington Post reports, Putin drafts up to 300,000 reservists, backs annexation amid war losses:

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial military mobilization Wednesday to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine, including Russia’s recent humiliating retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

In a national address broadcast at 9 a.m. Moscow time, Putin lashed out at the West, voiced his support for staged referendums being planned as a precursor to annexation of occupied areas of Ukraine, and hinted ominously that he was ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory — as he defines it.

“In the face of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin warned. “This is not a bluff,” he said, in a clear reference to Russia’s nuclear capabilities.

“I will emphasize this again — with all the means at our disposal,” he added.

Brimming with resentment and anger at the West’s backing of Ukraine, Putin called the war an effort by Western elites to destroy and dismember Russia, directly framing the war as a confrontation between Moscow and NATO countries.

Those comments were reinforced in a separate address by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, although Western leaders — including President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — urged Putin not to invade and have restricted support for Ukraine to signal that their nations are not directly fighting Russia.

The plans to stage referendums in four occupied regions of eastern Ukraine — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — from Friday to Tuesday pave the way for their illegal annexation into Russia, a step that will be rejected globally. But they could be used by Russia to claim that Ukraine’s attacks to liberate its own territory amount to attacks on Russia itself.

In other words, a pretext for a wider war in Europe. One has to wonder what Putin would hope to achieve with a wider war against the NATO Alliance. A lightly armed Ukraine military with virtually no air force or naval force to speak of has humiliated Russia’s military, which has control of the skies and, until recently, control of the Black Sea. Russia’s once feared armored forces have been exposed as aging and antiquated relics of the old Soviet Union and no match for U.S. supplied javelin missiles. Russia’s “special military operations” forces, which are now comprised of large numbers of forced conscripts and freed prisoners are either surrendering or running away in large numbers. Russia has suffered an extraordinary number of casualties.  Russia’s military command structure has been exposed as incompetent or incapable of handling an insurgent war in Ukraine. The far superior NATO forces would make quick work of the Russian military, hence Putin’s resort to threatening nucleare retaliation, which has long been part of the Russian national defense strategy.

Putin’s blunt, uncompromising rhetoric underscored his growing isolation, as Russia’s war on Ukraine dominated discussions at the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings, in New York where world leaders condemned military violence and lamented the global hardship caused by chaos in food supply chains and soaring energy prices.

The staged referendums being organized by Kremlin proxies have been condemned by many Western officials as “sham votes.”

“The United States will never recognize Russia’s claims” to Ukrainian territories purportedly annexed by Russia, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, said Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio also condemned the move, and there was a chorus of outcry from leaders in response to Putin’s hint of a nuclear strike and his partial mobilization.

“Russia cannot win this criminal war,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters in New York. Scholz said the staged referendums and call-up of reservists were an “act of desperation.”

But Putin has paid scant attention, leveraging Western condemnation to try to convince Russians that the West is out to destroy Russia.

Not Russia, but you and your kleptocracy of oligarchs which is destroying the hopes of Russian citizens for a modern European-style democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Slamming “aggressive” Western elites and their “pseudo-values,” Putin accused the West of trying to orchestrate a Soviet-style collapse of Russia itself.

You have managed to accomplish this all by yourself, Vlad, with your illegal war of aggression against Ukraine. Did you really think that there would not be economic sanctions and military aid to Ukraine? You are no strategic “genius” as you like to fool yourself.

“The purpose of the West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country,” he said in a speech that was clearly aimed at shifting public ambivalence into stronger national support for the war effort. [This is the “it’s not me, but all of you” framing from the authoritarian playbook that Republicans are using in this county.]  “They are already directly saying that in 1991, they were able to split the Soviet Union, and now the time has come for Russia itself, that it should disintegrate into many mortally hostile regions.”

“They made total Russophobia their weapon, including for decades purposefully cultivating hatred for Russia,” he said, adding that the West was using Ukraine as an “anti-Russian beachhead.”

Putin reiterated his false claims that Russia is eliminating “Nazis” from eastern Ukraine; repeated his denunciation of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, led by Zelensky, a former comedian and television actor, as a “Nazi regime”; and made sweeping assertions, without evidence, about the allegiance to Russia of residents of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

By mobilizing reservists, Putin bowed to intense pressure from pro-war hard-liners, taking a path likely to be deeply unpopular in Russia. The move also quickly drew new international condemnation and renewed pledges from Ukrainian officials in Kyiv to reclaim all territory occupied by Russian forces. The Ukrainians derided Putin’s moves as a desperate attempt to salvage Moscow’s failing war effort. [Because it is.]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he doubted Putin would use a nuclear weapon but the threat could not be ruled out. “We cannot look into this person’s head; there are risks,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild newspaper. Putin announced the partial mobilization because “he sees that his units are simply running away,” Zelensky said. “He wants to drown Ukraine in blood, but also in the blood of his own soldiers.”

The pivot to swift referendums, annexation and partial mobilization was an implicit admission of the failures and setbacks in what the Kremlin insists on calling a “special military operation,” despite Putin’s insistence as recently as last Friday that no changes were needed.

“No, the plan is not subject to correction,” he told journalists in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, at the end of a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where he faced “questions and concerns” about the war from his most powerful ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a public rebuke from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In his decree Wednesday, Putin stopped short of a full mobilization, which would entail a full-scale national draft, and he did not rebrand his “special military operation” as a war.

The call-up of reservists, nonetheless, will bring the grim reality of the war home to millions more Russians whose family members may now have to fight. And military analysts question the short-term benefits, saying it is not clear that Russia is capable of training and quartering 300,000 reservists, given how much of its military resources are tied up in Ukraine and recent significant losses in its officer corps.

A recent recruitment drive failed to turn the tide of the war, underscoring the unease in Russia about rising casualties.

Shoigu on Wednesday announced new casualty figures — including 5,937 dead — but Western estimates put Russia’s death toll much higher.

In July, CIA Director William J. Burns estimated that 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and some 45,000 wounded.

Russian news outlet Mediazona and the BBC Russian service, citing open-source materials such as social media posts, official announcements and obituaries found that at least 6,200 Russian service members were killed.

In a sign of disquiet over the mobilization, air tickets out of Russia were selling fast, with many flights fully booked.

One Moscow millionaire oligarch who lives partly in Italy but had returned to Russia for a few days described growing disenchantment with Putin and fear for the future among business executives. The millionaire oligarch said he was afraid that he could be stranded in Moscow, even though he is not in the military reserve [because the rich do not fight wars, only profit fom them.]

“There are no tickets, and it is getting more and more difficult to leave by road,” he said. “If there are additional restrictions due to the partial mobilization, it might not be possible to leave.” The millionaire oligarch, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal, said many in the business elite and intelligentsia saw the war as “a stupid mistake,” with few convinced by Putin’s argument that he is defending Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

The trust of business, of the cultural and academic elite in the regime has disappeared. Everyone understands that all the words about the defense of the Russian-speaking population [in Ukraine] and the fight for our brothers bear no relation to reality,” he said. “Everyone sees this as a stupid mistake.”

“They hoped to take over Ukraine in a month but this did not happen and now it will not happen,” the millionaire oligarch said. “There is no wish to assist in a victory over Ukraine. Everyone understands things are only going to get worse,” he said, predicting that “sooner or later” the war on Ukraine would lead to a leadership change in the Kremlin.

This is the one thing that Russians are really good at, historically. I suggest you wealthy oligarghs get on with it. Putin and his cronies have to go.

A Russian state official said that 300,000 reservists would be enough to buy time and “hold the line,” but not to mount new offensives. The official, who declined to be named in order to discuss sensitive issues, said the Kremlin still hopes that Western support for Ukraine would crumble over the winter, forcing Ukraine to accept Russian terms of surrender.

“It is clear that for both sides, the conflict is existential,” the official said. “All will depend on the decisiveness of the West after the winter. After the winter, the West may not be so united.” He expressed optimism that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Scholz would press Kyiv to accept a cease-fire.

With Russia’s conventional army facing repeated failures, Moscow has enlisted prisoners, some sent into battle with a week’s training, in an effort to address its manpower problem.

Military summonses were sent out in recent days, even before Putin’s speech. On Tuesday, Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, adopted legislation to toughen punishments for soldiers deserting, surrendering or refusing to fight, after many enlisted soldiers repudiated their contracts in recent months.

Putin’s decree now extends such contracts indefinitely.

Putin’s partial mobilization means that for the first time the war will seriously disrupt the lives of men in the major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the potential for an antiwar backlash is highest, although students will not be summoned.

Until now, the burden of fighting has fallen mainly on contract soldiers from Russia’s most impoverished regions, many of whom enlisted because of a lack of employment opportunities, or to get out of debt.

Within hours of the announcement, 180,000 Russians had signed an online anti-mobilization petition launched last spring by an activist group, “Soft Power.”

Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived poisoning in 2020 by Russian security agents, said Putin was smearing more Russians with blood in what he called a criminal war.

“It is clear that the criminal war is getting worse, deepening, and Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible in this,” Navalny said in a video message that his lawyers recorded in prison. “He wants to smear hundreds of thousands of people in this blood.”

Russia’s far worse than expected military performance in Ukraine leaves Moscow relying on its nuclear arsenal to affirm its status as a global power. Putin’s hint Wednesday about resorting to weapons of mass destruction was his sharpest yet.

Putin, who sees Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and denies that Ukraine is a genuine state, insisted Wednesday that Russia was obliged to assist people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

“We cannot, we have no moral right to hand over people close to us to be torn to pieces by executioners,” Putin said. “We cannot but respond to their sincere desire to determine their own fate.”

This is the same argument that the Nazis made about German citizens living in other regions of Europe. The Nazis were “liberating” German citizens from oppression, not imposing Nazi oppression on Germany’s neighbors in their telling of the story. It’s an old playbook.

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1 thought on “A Desperate Vladimir Putin Adopts Richard Nixon’s Madman Theory”

  1. Andrei Kolesnikov, a Russian journalist, is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on the major trends shaping Russian domestic politics, with particular focus on ideological shifts inside Russian society.

    Andrei Kolesnikov writes at CNN, “Putin has just laid a land mine under his regime”, https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/21/opinions/putin-mobilization-russians-ukraine-counteroffensive-kolesnikov/index.html

    In a televised national address Wednesday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization. This means that he has essentially broken an unwritten social contract with Russians: we, the citizens, allow you, the authorities, to steal and fight, but in exchange you stay out of our private lives.

    Beginning a new phase of the war, the cornered Putin is dragging a significant portion of Russians behind him. He has de facto declared war on the domestic front — not only on the opposition and civil society, but on the male population of Russia.

    Why is Putin taking the risk? Because he himself has encouraged the lack of public attention to the war for several months. Mobilization is fraught with serious discontent in society. That is precisely why he decided to make a partial mobilization, rather than a full one. In the long run, he laid a mine under his regime; in the short run, he will face sabotage.

    For so long, Putin fostered a disinclination among the masses for war, a disinclination that will now cost the Russians, who are being turned into cannon fodder.

    How might Wednesday’s announcement take Russians out of their comfort zone — those who remained indifferent to the “special operation” in the current circumstances?

    Until now at least, the main emotion (or rather, its absence) felt here was indifference. That indifference comes in different shades — genuine, imitative or self-cultivated.

    The Russian who falls within the 30% who “rather” support the “special operation” (nearly 50% “definitely” support it, slightly less than 20% do not support it) has no opinion of his own, prefers to borrow it from the TV or from Putin, blocks out for himself the bad news and alternative sources of information. But he sometimes does not like the war itself, and a person in this 30% could potentially change his attitude toward Putin and his initiatives.

    The indifference of ordinary people benefits Putin. We, the citizens, do not interfere in the affairs of our political class and support their initiatives, but in exchange we ask them to maintain an impression of normality.

    Which is what Putin does, skillfully combining partial mobilization in support of the war and himself (which happened immediately after the invasion began) and demobilization. Entertainment programs are back on TV, fireworks went off on annual Moscow City Day festivities (an ironic joke of this day was that Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin celebrated the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive), and people live their normal lives — interest in the events in Ukraine has been low throughout the summer.

    But even those who were indifferent could not ignore the Ukrainian counterattack. Although here, too, a reluctance to know the truth prevailed: if the officials said that it was not a retreat, but a regrouping of troops, then that was the case. Yet even the official Kremlin talk shows were full of admissions of failure.

    This did not provoke a desire for peace — which is also present in the mood even of those who generally support the operation — but caused an explosion of aggression and hate speech. There were calls to “take off the white gloves” and already really punish Ukraine. This is what Putin has done by launching missile strikes on infrastructure — power plants and hydroelectric facilities. This is revenge and anger, but anger that reveals weakness rather than strength.

    The radicals are unhappy with Putin and demand a war to the bitter end and general mobilization. But the Kremlin dictator lacks the resources for a quick victory, including, above all, human resources (which is why he is beginning to recruit cannon fodder, even from convicts serving their sentences).

    That said, it is not profitable for Putin to provoke the discontent of the middle classes, who are happy to watch the war from their sofa on TV, but are not about to go to the trenches. Moreover, general mobilization would divert the human capital needed for the economy — simply put, there would be hardly anyone to work.

    Discontent with Putin on the part of radical hawks is not a new phenomenon. But nevertheless, it has not yet manifested itself so vividly. However, they have no chance of competing with Putin — the ultra-conservative radicals will be suppressed with the same energy as the pro-Western liberals: the dictator will not tolerate any competition in the niche of war and imperialism.

    Public opinion in Russia is very inert, and something extraordinary will have to happen for the mood to change in earnest. The same is true of economic problems. Until now the social-economic crisis wasn’t so visible. The full-fledged beginning of it is being postponed, but, as some economists say, will probably manifest itself in late 2022/early 2023.

    While public opinion is in a state of inertia, Putin has a chance to find words to pass off defeats as victories. He could stop the war right now by describing the losses as gains. And partly he did, when he decided to fix the losses by announcing the urgent holding of referendums in the four occupied territories of Ukraine on their accession to Russia.

    It’s evident that Putin is not ready to stop what he started. He presumes that Russia will succeed on the battlefield. Or at least would gain a stronger foothold in the occupied territories, declaring them Russian, in which case any fighting in them would be assessed as an attack on Russia. And then he will have the opportunity to transfer the “special operation” into the official status of war and to create the possibility of general mobilization. Now Putin has announced only limited, “partial” mobilization.

    And that could all be a mistake. The longer Putin delays ending the war — even given the already publicly expressed wariness of his main “friends” Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the harder it will be for him to make peace later on in terms that could be portrayed as victory.

    Yes, public opinion is mentally prepared for a long war, but who knows when the fatigue of constant tension, which has to be relieved by carefully nurtured indifference, will break through and change the mood. Putin says he has time and the Russian army is in no hurry.

    But as time passes, defeats will become increasingly difficult to present as victories — above all for the hesitating 30% who “rather” support him.

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