Putin in the Bunker

The Russian president against the world

Vladimir Putin meeting with Moscow-appointed heads of four annexed Ukrainian regions
Vladimir Putin meeting with Moscow-appointed heads of four annexed Ukrainian regions (Getty)

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Putin announced his attempt to lay claim to eastern Ukraine with his most unhinged speech yet, intending to terrify the rest of the world into submission. We should instead continue to show courage and steadfastness.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Major Escalation

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a speech at a ceremony to incorporate partially Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine into the Russian Federation, finally and explicitly declared an end to more than seven decades of international order. During a meandering rant, Putin defended raw Russian imperialism while he spooled off about a number of topics, including the fall of the U.S.S.R., the power of Western hegemony, and the American use of nuclear weapons on Japan. But his underlying goal was to warn the rest of the world to cease its opposition to his war of conquest in Ukraine.

Putin’s incorporation of these areas into Russia is a major escalation in his seven-month campaign against Ukraine, and it raises the same question that has haunted many in the world regularly since the first days of the invasion: How worried should we be about this war becoming a larger European conflict and eventually a global cataclysm? My initial reaction: We should be worried, but we should also stand fast and tell Putin that if he means to destroy peace and order across the entire planet, we will oppose him just as we have helped Ukraine oppose him in Europe.

Putin’s rant was meant to make the world quail in fear. In reality, Putin is likely more terrified than anyone right now: He’s a Russian dictator losing a war of aggression, and he knows how that could end for him. In his speech, he justified the war in Ukraine using everything from the boundaries of ancient Russia to what he sees as the illegitimate dissolution of the Soviet Union. With sheer brass, he then complained about Western colonialism and human-rights violations—this, from the leader of a country with a long and bloody history, from the tsars to Stalin and beyond, of enslaving and murdering millions.

Most of Putin’s complaints are merely warmed-over Soviet-era cant—evidence yet again that Putin, whatever his former goals as a supposed reformer, has never been able to dislodge the hammer and sickle from his political DNA. More to the point, however, Putin said today that this Western decadence was, in fact, the foundation of the global order and thus needed to be overthrown:

And all we hear is, the West is insisting on a rules-based order. Where did that come from anyway? Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them? Listen, this is just a lot of nonsense, utter deceit, double standards, or even triple standards! They must think we’re stupid.

Of course, the current international system was constructed after World War II with the participation of the Soviet Union itself, and the Russians have been beneficiaries of that order—and its economic rules and stability—for decades. Putin once supported it, before he mired himself in a war he could not win.

And then the speech really got wild.

Addressing the regime in Kyiv and “their real bosses in the West,” Putin dove into a steaming vat of paranoia, grandiosity, and inferiority, a stew whose toxic fumes have always permeated the Kremlin. He claimed that the West hates “Russian philosophy and thought,” as if people in Washington and London spend a lot of time thinking about any of that. He fulminated about trans people—almost certainly hoping that the usual useful idiots in the right-wing American press will pick up on it—and referred to the “overthrow of faith and traditional values” in the West as equivalent to “Satanism.”

Putin might well believe at least some of this, but like most Russian elites, he somehow manages to maintain a pretty cozy relationship with the banks and fashion houses run by those ostensible devil worshippers. He is also, however, trying to rally the most retrograde segments of Russian society while seeking to split the West with his usual rhubarb about defending Christian values.

What’s really going on here is that Putin, facing military collapse along the Ukrainian front, is desperately trying to deter Ukraine and its supporters from another round of offensives. He is trying to flip the script, to turn Russia from the aggressor into the defender, and to recast his botched adventure as the Great Patriotic War 2.0, a defense of the Motherland against fascist invaders. To do this, he has turned occupied Ukrainian territory into “Russia” and magically transformed subjugated Ukrainians into “Russians.”

We can’t let him get away with it. Many readers of The Atlantic know that I have for months counseled American caution and restraint while also supporting military aid and money for Ukraine. I still do. But Putin has now said that he is at war with everything that the nations of the world—including Russia—have built since the end of World War II. His demand is to be allowed to brutalize whomever he chooses and seize whatever he wants. His threat, no longer even barely veiled, is that if he is not allowed to run amok and create bloodbaths by fiat, he will use nuclear weapons.

We didn’t stand down in the face of the Soviet system that created this gangster, and we should not stand down now. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today, Ukraine has every right to recover its own territory and free its people. If Putin’s position is that this is cause for an even wider and more reckless conflict, then it is his choice, not ours.

I will have more to say about all of this in a longer analysis. But for today, the threat against all of us—Ukraine and the rest of the world—continues to mount. Opposing this Russian attack on the international order might require great sacrifice, but we must face the reality that no community of free nations can survive if it acquiesces to blackmail.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Florida officials said that at least three dozen deaths can be linked to Hurricane Ian so far. They expect the storm’s death toll to rise in the coming days.
  2. The Biden administration scaled back its student-loan-forgiveness plan yesterday, a change that will mainly affect borrowers who took out loans before 2010.
  3. Trevor Noah announced that he is leaving The Daily Show after seven years as its host.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Someone shown from the legs down holds two paintings, one of Queen Elizabeth II and one of King Charles III
(Olivia Arthur / Magnum)

An Ode to King Charles II

By James Parker

The trees groan like Morrissey, the rain comes down

and an owl hoots confidentially, knowing something I don’t.

Millions will mourn your departed mother

and millions won’t.

South from Scotland to darkly dripping London,

flag-draped and ghostly illumined

in the back of the glass-topped hearse,

her coffin swooped over the Westway,

dawdled round Hyde Park Corner

and into the next age. Your age. Which will—we trust—be worse.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane laughing at a dinner table in "Bros"
Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane in Bros (Universal Pictures)

Read. Our staffers recommend the novels they wish they’d read when they were younger.

In the mood for a short story? Try “Hill Station,” a new work of fiction by Madhuri Vijay.

Watch. In theaters, Billy Eichner’s Bros is a rom-com as entertaining as it is therapeutic.

The original Avatar has been rereleased (too bad Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from it, our critic argues).

On TV, the Hulu comedy Ramy is back for a third season. And, of course, Hocus Pocus 2 is on Disney+, if you’re looking to get into the Halloween spirit a bit early.

Listen. Björk walks you through how to listen to her powerful 10th album, Fossora.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I went and got my second COVID booster shot today, and as I sat thinking about the past two years of the pandemic, I thought of the greatest television series that not enough people have seen: Counterpart, starring J. K. Simmons. If you need a break from the constant bad news, I can’t say that this is a cheerful show—and I won’t say more about the role a pandemic plays—but if you’re into Cold War spy fiction, alternate histories, or both (especially both!), you should stream both seasons of this series, available on Amazon Prime Video.

I am not a professional television critic, but I will say that it is one of the most intelligent shows I’ve ever seen. It will not only intrigue you but make you think about fate, chance, the limits of science, and the problem of free will. Not bad for an excursion into “spy-fi,” and all with the amazing Simmons playing himself—twice. (And that’s all I’ll tell you about that.)

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.