War Stories

Why Vladimir Putin’s Latest Threat to the Rest of the World Is So Not Scary

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the State Council Presidium on the development of the national tourism industry at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok on September 6, 2022. He is hunched over with Russian flags behind him.
A diminished leader of a diminished country. Valery Sharifulin/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin released a new 31-page military doctrine on Monday, claiming his right to intervene, for “humanitarian” reasons, in any country where the rights of Russian-speaking people are in danger—and, more broadly, to “protect, safeguard and advance the traditions and ideals of the Russian world.”

Ordinarily, such a declaration would be seen as a threat to all the countries that were once republics of the Soviet Union. Putin preceded, and initially justified, his invasion of Ukraine by falsely claiming that ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country were victims of “genocide.”

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However, under the present circumstances, the new doctrine—while not to be dismissed lightly—shouldn’t be taken very seriously either.

Putin’s ability to invade other former republics—such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or even the tiny Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—is a doubtful proposition. (The Baltic states are NATO members, making such a possible attack particularly ill-advised.) He is drawing on three-quarters of his army to invade Ukraine, his neighbor to the west, which he thought he could conquer in a matter of days—only to be bogged down, six months later, in a stalemate at best. Ukraine, aided by Western-supplied heavy arms, is now regaining lost territory in the east and the south, around Kharkiv and Kherson respectively, where the Russians recently enjoyed a solid advantage.

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Russia is no longer able to build or repair tanks, owing to a ban on exports from Western countries that once supplied crucial components. It is buying millions of rockets and shells from North Korea—hardly a bastion of reliable, high-tech military products—another sign that Russia can’t make even rudimentary weapons, and that China, though an ally in some senses, is still putting strict limits on how much it’s willing to help Moscow’s war effort directly.

Not that Russia is losing the war. Even the closest chroniclers of the battles are hesitant to declare which side is ahead. The fighting has a long way to go. And while Ukraine has the momentum at the moment, thanks in large part to long-range, accurate artillery supplied by the U.S., Russia still maintains an edge in firepower as well as a geographic advantage: Ukraine—which is reliant on the support of its Western allies—will not strike targets inside Russia, for fear of sparking escalation (possibly nuclear escalation), while Russia strikes targets indiscriminately inside Ukraine.

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As has been the case for a few months now, the fight is to a large extent a fight for time. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hopes that the flood of Western arms—Secretary of State Antony Blinken just promised another $2 billion worth—turns the tide. Putin is hoping that his troops can hang on until the winter, when his shutdown of energy exports to European countries—lowering the supply and raising the prices of heating fuel—will prod their populations and politicians to stop supporting Ukraine and to push for a halt to the fighting.

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The European Union, anticipating this possibility, has taken extraordinary steps to preempt it, scouring the globe for alternative energy supplies and pushing for conservation. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday, in Brussels, that while Russia’s pipeline provided 40 percent of the EU’s imported gas at the start of the war, it provides just 9 percent today.

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Germany, which once relied on Russia for more than half of its gas imports, today depends on it for less than 10 percent. Italy’s dependence has dropped from 40 percent to 23 percent. Several EU countries, notably France and Germany, have signed agreements to provide one another with energy supplies in case of extreme shortages.

Still, even 10 percent—or, in Italy’s case, nearly a quarter—of a country’s energy imports is a lot; it’s unknown whether the exchange agreements will hold up in practice; if the winter is especially cold, pressures to end support for the war will rise. Still, as of now, only Hungary—a stalwart supporter of Putin’s Russia—has renewed its contract with Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, in exchange for staying out of the war. Ukraine’s other allies are, for the moment, holding firm—much firmer than anyone would have expected a half-year ago.

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Then again, Russia’s economy, while hurting, isn’t on the verge of collapse. It has found willing customers elsewhere for its oil and gas, especially in China and India. And people in much of the world—in those countries as well as much of Africa and Latin America—either want to take no side in what they see as a superpower conflict, or they outright support Russia’s claims to Ukrainian territory.

It is also an inescapable fact that Russia possesses a large nuclear arsenal, which is the main—if not the only—reason why Biden and other Western leaders are not going all out in their support for Ukraine. None of them believe that this fight is worth risking World War III.

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Still, except for that one fact, Russia can no longer be taken seriously as a superpower—politically, economically, or militarily. Talk of expansive plans to protect “the Russian world” in far-flung territories is mere theater for a domestic audience that’s held captive under Putin’s propaganda machine and prone to believe his fantasies of a return to the greatness of empire.

Then again, fantasies aren’t entirely harmless. The question is whether Putin believes his own rhetoric—and whether he might, in a moment of desperation, act on it. In this sense, and in this sense only, his new doctrine should prompt some worry.

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