"There are no realistic offramps": a Russianist on the danger of a cornered Putin
Also: Ron Johnson's latest Covid conspiracy theory is completely nuts, even by modern GOP standards.
With Kremlin officials now talking openly about the possibility of nuclear war and Russian state TV propagandists raging about how World War III is already underway, experts are warning the world hasn’t seen a military climate this dangerous since the Cuban missile crisis 50 years ago.
The Putin regime is whipping Russians into a state of hysteria and ramping up its threatening rhetoric as its invasion of Ukraine continues to flounder. After failing to take Kyiv, the Russian military downgraded its objectives to taking control of southeastern Ukraine, but even that doesn’t seem to be going well. Meanwhile, the Biden administration and congressional leaders — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who made a surprise visit to Kyiv over the weekend and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — are working on a legislative package of up to $33 billion in fresh aid to Ukraine, including more than $20 billion in military gear.
Observers expect Putin to mark the Russian May 9 holiday of Victory Day with an announcement expanding the war effort. So I thought it would be timely to check in with Sarah Hurst, a UK-based journalist who writes the Russia Report newsletter and is perhaps best known as “XSoviet” on Twitter, for her take on Russia’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric and what offramps (if any) are still available to deescalate the conflict. (You can read another Q&A I did with Hurst two weeks before Putin’s invasion here.)
“The longer the war goes on, the higher the risks get, and you never know what ‘final straw’ could provoke Putin,” Hurst told me. “The best thing to do is try to end it with overwhelming strength, which means supplying Ukraine with huge quantities of heavy weapons and cutting off Russia's oil and gas revenues.”
A transcript of our DM exchange, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
You wrote in your most recent newsletter about the escalation of rhetoric from Russian officials and propagandists, with some now talking openly about nuclear war and world war 3.
How concerned should we be that these sorts of comments are more than just bluster?
I think we should be very concerned that Putin could be willing to do anything, especially since we constantly discussed before the invasion whether he was bluffing and just trying to bring Biden to the negotiating table. He wasn't. It would be foolish to again assume that Russian TV threats are just talk. On the other hand of course Putin wants to stave off full-scale NATO intervention by playing the nuclear card. But would you have trusted Trump in a nuclear standoff? No, because these despots are very unpredictable. Unfortunately we are not dealing with a slightly more rational player like Khrushchev.
The longer the war goes on, the higher the risks get, and you never know what "final straw" could provoke Putin. The best thing to do is try to end it with overwhelming strength, which means supplying Ukraine with huge quantities of heavy weapons and cutting off Russia's oil and gas revenues.
What we see now on Russian TV is absolutely over the top insane and it is vital to keep an eye on it to get the full picture of how detached from reality the country is.
What realistic offramps, if any, do you think there are to end this conflict before it escalates into a hot war between Russia and NATO?
There are no realistic offramps. I see no role for diplomacy with Russia. What do you say to liars who call the rest of the world Nazis and commit mass murder every day? As long as anyone is under Russian occupation they are being ruled by terrorists. It is like living under ISIS. We didn't talk about offramps for ISIS, we destroyed them. What was the other option? Handing Afghanistan over to the Taliban; letting Assad remain in power in Syria. Dictators on several continents, including Assad, Lukashenko and Maduro, not to mention various military regimes in Africa, are only there because the West refuses to confront Putin.
I know it’s tough to have much visibility into the real state of public opinion in Russia, but what’s your sense of how the war effort is going over there? You wrote last week about how a TV host was fired for criticizing Russian war crimes — how widespread do you think that sentiment is?
I think that anti-war sentiment in Russia is very much a minority view. A few people are principled and support Ukraine — such as two activists from the "liquidated" Memorial organization who were detained in Red Square this week and a man who stood with a sign mentioning Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol, as well as some higher-profile cases of journalists writing about the war and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza speaking out and being arrested.
Others might be getting sick of the war because of the economic costs or a relative being killed. But it appears that the majority of Russians fully believe that "our cause is just," as they say, while expressing hate for Ukrainians and even wishing for the country to be "wiped off the face of the earth". Many interviews with people on the street and bizarre appearances of the Z symbol in various formats testify to this. As well as, of course, the actions of Russian troops in Ukraine, which beggar belief.
Germans were only able to wake up to what they had done under Hitler because their country was devastated and they realized it had gone wrong. West Germans tried to make a new country that was nothing like the Third Reich. Russians never fully renounced Stalin but gradually rehabilitated and even glorified him. They are still under the sway of a dictator and we don’t know if or when that will ever change.
How likely do you think it is that Putin declares a general mobilization sometime soon, and what would that mean?
To be honest I thought Putin had mobilized his troops to the limit already, especially considering the fact that he is also in Syria and is up to all kinds of things in African countries such as the Central African Republic. Perhaps he could conscript all men under a certain age? Morale is already low and forcing untrained men to go to Ukraine would only result in an even higher death rate for them. It is more Putin's style to do something "asymmetrical" such as taking the war to Moldova or carrying out assassinations in the West. Russia is already well on the way to becoming another North Korea that keeps firing off missiles even when the population is destitute.
NYT runs with GOP framing about the seeming demise of Roe
I wrote yesterday about Republicans responding to bombshell news about SCOTUS being poised to overturn Roe v. Wade by railing against whoever leaked the draft decision, instead of talking about the real issue — that the days of women having a federal right to an abortion seem numbered. That GOP deflection isn’t surprising, considering polling showing a majority of between 58 and 70 percent of Americans opposed to overturning Roe.
But while it makes some sense for the Mitch McConnells of the world to bemoan leaks instead of defending reproductive rights being stripped away on the merits, it was galling to see the New York Times run with GOP framing.