COMMENTARY

Putin can't take much more of this: What lies ahead, defeat or apocalypse?

With the sinking of the Moskva, Putin's war has become an almost unthinkable disaster. That increases the danger

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Published April 16, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Well, the Big Lie, Russian style, has begun. It's not exactly like losing an election — that's never going to happen in Vladimir Putin's Russia — but losing a guided missile cruiser, the Moskva, the most important warship in Russia's Black Sea fleet is, let us say, just a little hard for the big guy to stomach back at the Kremlin, or the dacha, or whatever bunker he's keeping himself in these days. 

But not to worry! Russki spinners were on it before the big ship even hit the bottom! Uh … hmm … I've got it! A fire broke out on board! It spread to the ammunition stores! There was an explosion! That's the ticket!

Anything but the obvious: it was sunk by two Neptune anti-ship missiles fired from Ukrainian soil. So what does Putin do? Why, he has one of his factotums deliver a diplomatic protest known as a démarche from the Russian embassy in Washington to the Department of State threatening "unpredictable consequences" unless the U.S. stops shipping advanced weapons to Ukraine. 

RELATED: Putin's big fail: He's a spook, not a military commander — and not even a good spook

The Russian threat came on the heels of a warning by CIA Director William J. Burns that Putin might resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to counter his losses on the battlefield and now the high seas. "Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they've faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons," Burns said in answer to a question from former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who was one of the architects of the agreement that removed nuclear weapons from Ukraine and other former Soviet client states 30 years ago. (You remember that jewel: Russia would take the nukes from Ukraine and the rest of the vassal states in return for providing their security.) Burns is a former ambassador to Russia who dealt directly with Putin while serving in Moscow and is the Biden administration official most familiar with his thinking.

Meanwhile, following Finland and Sweden's announcements that they will petition to join NATO "within weeks, not months," Moscow confirmed Burns' suspicions by once again rattling its nuclear saber. Dmitry Medvedev, former president and deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, posted this on his official Telegram channel on Thursday: "If Sweden and Finland join NATO, the length of the alliance's land borders with the Russian Federation will more than double. Naturally, these borders will have to be strengthened. Russia will seriously strengthen the grouping of land forces and air defense, deploy significant naval forces in the waters of the Gulf of Finland. In this case, it will no longer be possible to talk about any nuclear-free status of the Baltic."

Putin has taken one body blow after another since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine almost two months ago. First, it was the humiliation of the 40-mile military convoy from Belarus to Kyiv that was supposed to take the Ukrainian capital city and decapitate its leadership, sending Volodymyr Zelenskyy into panicked flight. Didn't happen. Instead, Putin's convoy was repeatedly attacked by Ukrainian ground forces, stalling its progress outside of Kyiv. Many tanks, mobile artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers simply ran out of gas and turned into easy targets for Ukrainian soldiers armed with shoulder-fired rockets such as the Javelin and RPG-7 rocket fired grenades.

Russian soldiers, apparently frustrated by their inability to penetrate Ukrainian defenses around Kyiv, and possibly under the orders of  superiors they may have feared would shoot them in the back of their heads, struck out at civilians in the suburb of Bucha and other towns along the capital's western border, shooting at least 95 percent of them in, you guessed it, the back of the head. "People were simply executed in the streets," Andriy Nebytov, the head of Kyiv's regional police force, told reporters as he supervised the investigation of the murders committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha. More than 900 bodies of Ukrainian civilians had been recovered as of Friday, according to reports. 

Attacks by the Ukrainian military, operating with small units in well-coordinated maneuvers, drove Russian forces into open retreat across the border in recent weeks, another humiliation for the Russian president, who by many accounts expected his war on Ukraine to be over within a week. The Times of London reported on Monday that Putin had fired as many as 150 officers in the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) Fifth Service, a department of the Russian intelligence service set up to operate within countries of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. The purge included jailing Sergei Beseda, the former head of the Fifth Service, in Lefortovo prison in Moscow, a facility long used by the KGB to interrogate and punish political prisoners in Soviet times. Putin appears to be scapegoating the FSB for the intelligence failures that have led to the disaster in Ukraine as the war heads into its third month with no real military gains he can point to as victories.


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At a background briefing on Thursday, a senior Pentagon official told reporters that Russia is continuing its buildup of forces in eastern Ukraine. "We continue to see Russia posture for offensive operations in the Donbas, and continue to see additional equipment arrive in western Russia and in that area to the north of the Donbas that we talked about, Valuyki and Rovenki, including, in fact, we've seen some additional helicopters make their way to be staged in that area for insertion."

Translation: The Pentagon has eyes-in-the-sky watching every move the Russians make in and around Ukraine, including the areas of Russia and Belarus it has previously used as staging grounds for attack. When the Pentagon says stuff like, "additional helicopters," that means they're counting every one of them, which means they're counting artillery pieces, tanks, refueling trucks — the whole lot — and passing that information directly to Ukraine.

Has Putin learned any lessons over the last 50-plus days? His offensive in eastern Ukraine looks to be a carbon copy of the one that failed to take Kyiv and Kharkiv in March.

Which makes you wonder why Putin hasn't learned any lessons over the last 50-plus days. He appears to be readying a new offensive in eastern Ukraine that will be a carbon copy of the one he launched against Kyiv and Kharkiv in February and March. The Pentagon is being very open about what it is "seeing" on the ground in both Russian staging areas and in Ukraine itself, as it was before the invasion on Feb. 24. If the Pentagon was correct the last time about both Russian intentions and movements — and it was — the chances are very strong it's correct this time as well. It would be safe to assume that the Ukrainian response to the new Russian offensive in the east will be at least as effective as it was before, given the new weapons systems that even now are making their way to Ukraine's army. These include attack helicopters, long-range artillery and ground-to-ground rocket launchers, and the MIG-29s from Poland that are finally going to join Ukraine's air arsenal.

The last time the Pentagon shared its intelligence about Russia with the world, Putin wasn't listening. That means there is a strong chance his less-than-competent army will lose on the battlefield again. If that happens, who knows what the "unpredictable consequences" will be? Like another authoritarian leader I can think of, Vladimir Putin is going to learn that the Big Lie is a poor substitute for winning.

Read more on Putin, Russia and the war in Ukraine:


Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Commentary Nuclear Weapons Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin War