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Putin threatens to go nuclear — because his military is suffering badly in Ukraine

Russian threats of nuclear escalation are notably resurfacing as President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” enters its third year.

Why?

Outright victories on the Ukrainian battlefield are proving elusive for the Russian military, rendering Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka a significant rare win for Kremlin propaganda.

But it came at a high cost to Moscow throughout the front lines.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reported Oct. 9 total Russian-troop deaths of 282,630.

By Feb. 20, they were at 404,950.

That’s more than 122,000 Russian soldiers killed in 19 weeks of fighting.

Compare Soviet-military deaths in Afghanistan: 15,000 in 10 years.

Unsustainable? By Western standards, probably, but that’s a hazard of mirror imaging. 

The Kremlin has demonstrated a complete disregard for civilian and military casualties and will continue to press its counteroffensive as Ukraine exhausts its ammunition supplies; there are more bodies where those came from. 

Ukraine’s military-intelligence agency says Russia has about 450,000 soldiers deployed in the country.

Putin has the towns of Krynky, Verbove, Robotyne, Synkivka and Ivanivka in his sights, and Russian barrier troops — which keep soldiers from evacuating — will ensure forward movement.

But upcoming Biden administration and German decisions concerning the deployment of precision deep-strike weapons — namely ATACMS and the Taurus cruise missile — are likely weighing heavily on Putin’s mind, along with the coming introduction of F-16 fighter jets.

Ditto bilateral security guarantees, some signed just days ago, with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Canada — and Sweden’s and Britain’s announcements last week of additional military assistance.

Europe is not giving up on Ukraine.

Propaganda wins aside, it was a losing week for Putin.

While the Kremlin pushed Ukrainian forces out of Avdiivka, devastating human and equipment losses bely Putin’s “winning” narrative.

As many as 65 soldiers from Russia’s 39th Separate Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade stationed near Trudivske, in the Donetsk region, were killed midweek in a single HIMARS strike on their training area. 

And Ukraine can use Western-supplied weapons to hit inside Russia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters last week: “According to international law, Ukraine has the right to self-defense. And it also includes strikes against legitimate military targets, Russian military targets outside of Ukraine.”

Then Friday, Ukraine shot down its second Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft in just over a month.

Ukrainian military sources said they hit the plane — whose cost can run to the hundreds of millions of dollars — between Russian cities Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar.

That’s more than 124 miles from the front line, adding to speculation as to what weapon system was used to take it down.

For the week, Russia lost an additional seven aircraft, Su-34 fighter-bombers and Su-35S fighter jets.


Ukrainian forces continued advancing around the city of Bakhmut in the east, claiming gains along the Bila Hora-Andriivka and Bila Hora-Kurdyumivka lines southwest of the city that was captured by Russian troops in May. Over the past week, Ukraine’s General Staff reported that Kyiv’s fighters had liberated more than 1.5 square miles of territory in the area, including an important position outside the strategic village of Klishchiivka. Capturing the village itself, which lies on higher ground, could potentially allow Ukrainian soldiers to encircle Russians inside Bakhmut.

Ukraine claimed to have recaptured several villages in the south of the country as part of its budding push toward the Sea of Azov, with the aim of cutting off Russia’s land bridge linking occupied areas in the east to Crimea. A general in charge of that sector said his troops repelled 27 enemy attacks and inflicted hundreds of casualties on the enemy.

Kyiv’s forces launched a successful missile strike on a Russian base in the occupied town of Tokmak in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, killing as many as 200 soldiers and the town commandant. Overall in the eastern theater, Ukraine’s military said its troops had retaken 65 square miles of territory since the start of the counteroffensive in early June.

Kyiv’s forces reportedly inched forward more than half a mile in the Berdyansk and Melitopol directions in the south in recent days — and a total of more than 5 miles since the beginning of counteroffensive operations in these directions. In Berdyansk, a key port city on the Black Sea, a Ukrainian Storm Shadow missile strike this week leveled a hotel housing Russian military commanders, among them a high-ranking general who was killed. 

Kyiv said its troops had advanced about a mile on the flanks of the ravaged city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, which was seized by Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries in May after months of fighting and handed over to the regular units. Moscow claimed it had fought off the assault, and senior US officials said that Ukrainian troops in the east sustained “significant” losses in soldiers and equipment.

Pro-Ukrainian rebels have been carrying out raids into the Russian city of Belgorod located on the border with Ukraine, as Kyiv’s forces continued shelling the city and sowing chaos. Thousands of residents have been evacuated from the region, sparking fury in the Kremlin. Partisans taking part in the Belgorod campaign said when Crimea is liberated, they will march on Moscow.

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The A-50 downing was parlayed Friday evening when Ukrainian drones were able to strike deep into the Russian interior, hitting the Novolipetsk Steel factory in the city of Lipetsk, responsible for nearly 18% of the country’s steel output.

Putin needs a global way out to reset his military.

Killing Alexei Navalny solidified his domestic position, but it changed the decision-making calculus vis-à-vis Ukraine for many Western leaders.

“Escalating to de-escalate” is a favored Putin tactic, and thus he is once again playing nuclear cards to try to intimidate the West to stand down in Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, Security Council deputy chairman and former president, threatened America and Europe last week with nuclear annihilation should Russia lose the war and be forced to return to its 1991 borders.

His statement came shortly after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) announced he “had information concerning a serious national security threat,” which turned out to be a Russian nuclear anti-satellite capability.

Putin underscored the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling by flying Thursday on a Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber — just one of many messages sent over the last two years that have contributed to the Biden administration’s escalation paralysis.

The United States, NATO and the European Union cannot afford to be cowered by Putin’s nuclear threats — an oratorical Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Russian forces in Ukraine are vulnerable, and the West must play its substantial military advantages by arming Ukraine with the right weapons in sustained quantities sufficient to win the war and secure democracy in Europe.

Putin’s nuclear threats must not go unanswered.

Washington must confront Putin just as President John Kennedy did Nikita Khrushchev.

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy.

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