Putin's path: from pledges of stability to nuclear threats

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 24, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants.

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 24, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he attends a meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he attends a meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, talks to President Vladimir Putin, right, during the Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on April 28, 2019. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants.

    FILE - Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, left, talks to President Vladimir Putin, right, during the Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on April 28, 2019. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. Associated Press

  • FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the opening of the Army 2022 International Military and Technical Forum in the Patriot Park outside Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 15, 2022. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the opening of the Army 2022 International Military and Technical Forum in the Patriot Park outside Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 15, 2022. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressees the nation in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russian troops launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine on Thursday, as Putin cast aside international condemnation and sanctions and warned other countries that any attempt to interfere would lead to "consequences you have never seen." (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP, File)

    FILE - In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressees the nation in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russian troops launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine on Thursday, as Putin cast aside international condemnation and sanctions and warned other countries that any attempt to interfere would lead to "consequences you have never seen." (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, holds a binoculars as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sits near watching the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, holds a binoculars as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sits near watching the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during interview with the Russia-1 TV channel in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 3, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during interview with the Russia-1 TV channel in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 3, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an event to celebrate the 1160th anniversary of Russian statehood in Veliky Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia, being first mentioned in the 9th century, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Ilya Pitalev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an event to celebrate the 1160th anniversary of Russian statehood in Veliky Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia, being first mentioned in the 9th century, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Ilya Pitalev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Participants watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's addressing a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, June 17, 2022. Putin has broken an unwritten social contract that saw the Russians tacitly agree to forego post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for a relative prosperity and internal stability.

    FILE - Participants watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's addressing a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, June 17, 2022. Putin has broken an unwritten social contract that saw the Russians tacitly agree to forego post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for a relative prosperity and internal stability. Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 22, 2022, marking the 81st anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. By unleashing the disastrous war in Ukraine, Europe's largest military conflict since World War II, Putin has broken an unwritten social contract that saw the Russians tacitly agree to forego post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for a relative prosperity and internal stability.

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 22, 2022, marking the 81st anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. By unleashing the disastrous war in Ukraine, Europe's largest military conflict since World War II, Putin has broken an unwritten social contract that saw the Russians tacitly agree to forego post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for a relative prosperity and internal stability. Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a candle visiting the Peter and Paul Cathedral prior to signing the decrees approving the Naval Doctrine and the Ship Charter of the Russian Navy in the St. Petersburg State History Museum and before the main naval parade marking Russian Navy Day in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, July 31, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a candle visiting the Peter and Paul Cathedral prior to signing the decrees approving the Naval Doctrine and the Ship Charter of the Russian Navy in the St. Petersburg State History Museum and before the main naval parade marking Russian Navy Day in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, July 31, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian recruits walk to take a train at a railway station in Prudboi, Volgograd region of Russia, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to beef up his forces in Ukraine. With the Russian army retreating under the blows of Ukrainian forces armed with Western weapons, Putin raised the stakes by annexing four Ukrainian regions and declaring a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to buttress the crumbling frontline.

    FILE - Russian recruits walk to take a train at a railway station in Prudboi, Volgograd region of Russia, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to beef up his forces in Ukraine. With the Russian army retreating under the blows of Ukrainian forces armed with Western weapons, Putin raised the stakes by annexing four Ukrainian regions and declaring a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to buttress the crumbling frontline. Associated Press

  • FILE - Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against mobilization in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia, effective immediately.

    FILE - Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against mobilization in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia, effective immediately. Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking to winners of cultural, scientific and sports student competitions at the Museum and Theatre Educational Complex in Kaliningrad, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking to winners of cultural, scientific and sports student competitions at the Museum and Theatre Educational Complex in Kaliningrad, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19, 2022, shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an air field during military drills. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

    FILE - This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19, 2022, shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an air field during military drills. With his room for maneuver narrowing quickly amid Russian military defeats in Ukraine, Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Vostok 2022 (East 2022) military exercise in far eastern Russia, outside Vladivostok, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Vostok 2022 (East 2022) military exercise in far eastern Russia, outside Vladivostok, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Putin has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - the harrowing rhetoric that shattered a mantra of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - People watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address as they gather during celebrations marking the incorporation of the Luhansk region into Russia in Luhansk, Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums." Words on their ti-shorts are reading "Volunteers for Russia, With Russia forever!".

    FILE - People watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address as they gather during celebrations marking the incorporation of the Luhansk region into Russia in Luhansk, Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums." Words on their ti-shorts are reading "Volunteers for Russia, With Russia forever!". Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin joins hands with Moscow-appointed head of Kherson Region Vladimir Saldo, Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhzhia region Yevgeny Balitsky, Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, as they celebrate at the Kremlin during a ceremony to sign the treaties for four regions of Ukraine to join Russia, in Moscow, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums." (Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin joins hands with Moscow-appointed head of Kherson Region Vladimir Saldo, Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhzhia region Yevgeny Balitsky, Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, as they celebrate at the Kremlin during a ceremony to sign the treaties for four regions of Ukraine to join Russia, in Moscow, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums." (Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks as Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, left, Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed of the Donetsk People's Republic, second left, Moscow-appointed head of Kherson Region Vladimir Saldo, second right, and Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhzhia region Yevgeny Balitsky, right, stand near him during celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums." (Sergei Karpukhin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks as Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, left, Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed of the Donetsk People's Republic, second left, Moscow-appointed head of Kherson Region Vladimir Saldo, second right, and Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhzhia region Yevgeny Balitsky, right, stand near him during celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated "referendums." (Sergei Karpukhin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

  • FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting with the winners and finalists of the School Teacher of the Year national contest via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

    FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting with the winners and finalists of the School Teacher of the Year national contest via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, has found himself increasingly cornered with his army suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing his mobilization order and rifts opening up among his top lieutenants. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/7/2022 1:50 PM

As he turns 70 on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself in the eye of a storm of his own making: His army is suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Russians are fleeing his mobilization order, and his top lieutenants are publicly insulting military leaders.

With his room for maneuvering narrowing, Putin has repeatedly signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine - a harrowing threat that shatters the claims of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule.

 

'This is really a hard moment for him, but he can't accuse anyone else. He did it himself,' said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. 'And he is going straight ahead to big, big problems.'

By unleashing the disastrous war in Ukraine, Europe's largest military conflict since World War II, Putin has broken an unwritten social contract in which Russians tacitly agreed to forgo post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for relative prosperity and internal stability.

Mikhail Zygar, a journalist who has had extensive contacts among the Kremlin elite and published a bestselling book about Putin and his entourage, noted that the invasion came as a complete surprise not only for the public but for Putin's closest associates.

'All of them are in shock,' Zygar said. 'None of them wanted to see the developments unfold in such a way just because they are going to lose everything. Now they are all stained by blood, and they all understand they have nowhere to run."

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Stanislav Belkovsky, a longtime political consultant with extensive contacts among the ruling class, described the invasion as a mechanism of 'self-destruction for Putin, his regime and the Russian Federation.'

With the Russian army retreating under the blows of Ukrainian forces armed with Western weapons, Putin raised the stakes by annexing four Ukrainian regions and declaring a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to buttress the crumbling front line.

The poorly organized call-up has triggered broad chaos. The military is struggling to provide supplies for new recruits, many of whom were told to buy medical kits and other basics themselves and were left to sleep on the floor while waiting to be sent to the front.

Social networks have been abuzz with discussions about how to dodge recruitment, and hundreds of thousands of men fled the mobilization, swarming Russia's borders with ex-Soviet neighbors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The mobilization, Kolesnikov noted, has eroded Putin's core support base and set the stage for potential political upheavals. 'After the partial mobilization, it's impossible to explain to anyone that he stabilized the system. He disrupted the foundation of stability,' he said.

The military setbacks also drew public insults from some of Putin's top lieutenants directed toward military leaders. The Kremlin has done nothing to halt the criticism, a signal that Putin could use it to set the stage for a major shakeup of the top brass and blame them for the defeats.

"The infighting between powerful clans in Putin's entourage could destabilize the system and significantly weaken Putin's control over the situation in the country,' Belkovsky said.

The widening turmoil marks a dramatic contrast with the image of stability Putin has cultivated since taking helm in 2000. He has repeatedly described the turbulent rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, as a time of decay when national riches were pilfered by Kremlin-connected tycoons and the West while millions were plunged into poverty.

Russians have eagerly embraced Putin's promises to restore their country's grandeur amid oil-driven economic prosperity, and they have been largely indifferent to the Kremlin's relentless crackdown on political freedoms.

Insiders who have closely studied Putin's thinking say he still believes he can emerge as a winner.

Belkovsky argued that Putin hopes to win by using energy as an instrument of pressure. By reducing the gas flow to Europe and striking a deal with OPEC to reduce oil output, he could drive prices up and raise pressure on the U.S. and its allies.

Putin wants the West to tacitly accept the current status quo in Ukraine, resume energy cooperation with Russia, lift the most crippling sanctions and unfreeze Russian assets, Belkovsky said.

'He still believes that he will get his way in the long showdown with the West, where the situation on the Ukrainian front line is just one important, but not decisive, element,' Belkovsky said.

At the same time, Putin threatened to use 'all means available' to defend the newly annexed Ukrainian territories in a blunt attempt to force Ukraine and its Western allies to back off.

The U.S. and its allies have said they are taking Putin's threats seriously but will not yield to what they describe as blackmail to force the West to abandon Ukraine. Ukraine vowed to press its counteroffensive despite the Russian rhetoric.

Kolesnikov described Putin's nuclear threats as a reflection of growing desperation.

'This is the last step for him in a sense that this is a suicidal' move, Kolesnikov said. 'If he's ready for the step, it means that we are witnessing a dictator who is even worse than Stalin.'

Some observers have argued that NATO could strike Russia with conventional weapons if Putin presses the nuclear button.

Belkovsky warned that Putin firmly believes that the U.S. and its allies wouldn't dare to strike back if Russia used a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

'If the U.S. believes that there is no psychologically readiness for that, it's mistaken,' he said.

Zygar compared the Russian leader to a fighter pilot who tries to win a dogfight by attacking the enemy head-on and waiting for him to turn away first.

'He thinks he has the nerve, and he believes he must escalate to the end,' Zygar said.

He noted that pundits failed to predict Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion just because they were using rational criteria.

'Our past perceptions about rational limits all have proven false,' he said. 'There are no such limits.'

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