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Beware of calling Putin’s bluff

A Russian nuclear missile in Moscow. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

The conventional wisdom about the war in Ukraine is that Vladimir Putin has “miscalculated”, says Lionel Barber in The Spectator. In this view, all his poorly executed blitzkrieg has achieved is a “reinvigorated” Nato and a barrage of economic measures. But what if it’s really the West which has miscalculated? What if all our sanctions and “intensified military aid” to Ukraine’s local resistance encourage Putin to double down and use a “weapon of last resort” – be it nuclear, chemical or biological – “even at the risk of World War Three”? It is tempting to assume Putin is bluffing, but his actions so far suggest the opposite. After a recent phone call with the Russian president, Emmanuel Macron concluded: “The worst is yet to come.”

“Wishful thinkers” might believe that Western economic and political pressure could lead to an implosion like the end of the USSR. “They should revisit the history books.” The Soviet Union ended after decades of decay, not a lost skirmish. The more we corner Putin, the more dangerous he becomes. Far better to encourage the Chinese to broker a truce than risk sliding into a new Cold War, or worse. The alternative for Putin is “a bloody war of occupation, pariah status and a shrinking economy”. The danger is, he may have priced in all this and more. What we need are cool heads, patience and a heavy dose of realism, not wishful thinking about regime change in Moscow. “Henry Kissinger, where are you?”


When Putin has an “outburst of rationality”, we need to be ready to negotiate with him, says historian Max Hastings on BBC Radio 4’s PM. We certainly need to improve our recent track record in communication. One general has told me that in the last couple of years, we’ve spoken to Moscow less than we did at “the height of the Cold War”.

Listen to the full interview here from 32:21.