Russian President Vladimir Putin spent his 70th birthday on Friday being lauded by his political allies, and rebuked by the Nobel Peace Prize committee, after U.S. President Joe Biden said the Russian leader’s threats had brought the world closer to Armageddon than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Those who have studied Mr. Putin for years say he has become more unpredictable with age, adding to the danger that he will push the world to the brink of nuclear conflict as he searches for a way to salvage some kind of victory out of the war he launched against Ukraine.
Mr. Biden said on Thursday that he believed Mr. Putin was “not joking” when he hinted at using his weapons of mass destruction to halt a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has been liberating territory Russia captured earlier in the 226-day-old war.
“For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going,” Mr. Biden said. “His military is, you might say, is significantly underperforming.”
Russia’s battlefield setbacks, combined with obvious infighting erupting behind the Kremlin walls, have made Mr. Putin look weaker than at perhaps any other point in his 22-year reign. A trio of videos posted online this week encapsulated the mounting pressure, and the risks that could bring.
In the first clip, several hundred recently mobilized Russian soldiers, many of them wearing balaclavas and clutching assault rifles, gather around a telephone camera to record their shouted complaints about poor living conditions and a lack of orders. “Officers treat us like animals!” one soldier yells. “Nobody needs us!” replies the man holding the camera.
The scene, apparently filmed near the border with Ukraine, is among dozens posted to social media recently that show mounting anger over Russia’s chaotic mobilization of fighting-age men, which Mr. Putin ordered a little more than two weeks ago. But there’s a twist: In the video, which was posted online Wednesday, at least one of the soldiers is wearing the insignia of the Wagner Group, a private military company infamous for fighting on the Kremlin’s behalf in Libya and Syria before sustaining heavy losses in Ukraine. Its soldiers are relatively well-paid and would not have been affected by the conscription order.
Until recently, Wagner was seen as an extension of the Kremlin, and of Mr. Putin himself. The group’s boss, Yevgeniy Prigozhin – known as “Putin’s chef” – gained worldwide notoriety over his employees’ alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
A second video, also posted Wednesday, underscored the growing tensions inside Mr. Putin’s inner circle over the poorly run war and the shambolic mobilization. In it, members of Russia’s National Guard – who report directly to Mr. Putin – tackle and arrest Alexei Slobodenyuk, an employee of Mr. Prigozhin’s, on the streets of Moscow. Mr. Slobodenyuk was the manager of several Telegram channels that have been harshly critical of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top officials, though not Mr. Putin himself.
Amid that infighting, a third video drew the attention of military analysts. It shows a long train of military equipment, heading east toward the Ukrainian border. While such trains have been commonplace since last year, when Russia’s buildup around Ukraine began, this one was carrying several Vystrel armoured vehicles, specially mounted with 30-milimetre turrets.
Such Vystrels are believed to be used only by the 12th Main Directorate of Russia’s Ministry of Defence – the unit responsible for transporting and operating Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The photos of what’s been dubbed the “nuclear train” were first shown on Telegram channels linked to Russia’s military, meaning they were likely intended to be seen in the West.
While there were no signs that the train was actually carrying nuclear weapons on its journey west, its appearance sparked worries that Russia might preparing to conduct some kind of nuclear test – perhaps near its borders with Ukraine, or over the Black Sea. “I think it was signalling and that we will see more of such signals,” said Konrad Muzyka, a Polish-based military analyst.
The video appeared online just before Mr. Putin signed the documents to annex four Ukrainian regions that are partially occupied by the Russian military. Mr. Putin said the move meant that Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia would be considered “Russian territory,” and that they would be defended with “all weapons systems available to us.”
The repeated references by Mr. Putin and other officials to Russia’s nuclear arsenal are viewed as an attempt to draw new red lines in the conflict. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that his country’s forces won’t stop their counterattack until they have retaken all lost territory, including Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
Mark Galeotti, a London-based expert on Russia’s security services, said Mr. Putin has backed himself into a rhetorical corner by annexing chunks of Ukraine that Russia is ill-prepared to defend. “If you’re the czar who portrays himself as the great collector of Russian lands, you can’t be the czar who gives them back.”
The behind-the-scenes battle between Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Shoigu is “a symptom of the increasing tension within the system as a whole,” Mr. Galeotti said, adding to the pressure on Mr. Putin to somehow reverse Russia’s losses in Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord who rules Russia’s southern Chechnya region, separately launched a public attack on Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff, over Russia’s battlefield defeats.
While Mr. Galeotti said he didn’t believe Mr. Putin was ready to order a nuclear attack “at the moment,” the likelihood of a standoff similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis would grow as Ukrainian troops pushed closer to Crimea, the annexation of which Mr. Putin considers central to his legacy.
Other analysts say it has become increasingly difficult to predict what Mr. Putin, who came to power in Russia at the turn of the century, will do next.
“We can only guess. We’ve been wrong twice already, believing he will not attack Ukraine and will not start mobilization,” said one well-known scholar of Russian politics, who remains in Russia but has stopped publishing their work out of concern they could be arrested. “If the rational part of his brain works, he will not go nuclear. If the emotional part now rules, he will say ‘Screw you!’”
The Globe and Mail is not naming the scholar out of concern they could face repercussions for their comments.
The scholar said that “one has to be a professional shrink” to guess at Mr. Putin’s mental state as he turns 70. The birthday was marked by praise from Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, who told Mr. Putin that “God put you in power so that you could perform a service of special importance and of great responsibility for the fate of the country.”
The Nobel Peace Prize committee, however, delivered a sharp rebuttal to Mr. Putin’s politics by awarding the 2021 prize to anti-Putin activists including Memorial, a Russian human-rights organization dedicated to preserving the evidence of the gulags and other crimes committed by the Soviet regime. The Kremlin forced Memorial to close its historic Moscow office late last year, in what was seen as a watershed moment in Russia’s journey back toward authoritarianism under Mr. Putin.
The Centre for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian human rights group, and Ales Bialiatski, the jailed founder of Viasna, a pro-democracy organization in Belarus, were honoured alongside Memorial.
Mr. Galeotti agreed that it is difficult to forecast what the Russian leader might do next. “Putin in 2022 is not the same as Putin in 2012,” he said, adding that much of the President’s rhetoric about Ukraine and the West was essentially the same as it had been for years.
What was new, Mr. Galeotti said, was “the unbridled passion and the lack of self-control” in Mr. Putin’s recent speeches. “The very fact that he talks about the nuclear option so much is in itself significant.”