We saw classic Putin playing the good cop, then bad cop routine.
First the partial mobilisation, support for referenda in occupied territories and then the non too guarded hint of use of nukes if we don't go along with his, well, "evil plans". Then the good cop routine, with the release of 220 Ukrainian POWs and ten foreign nationals for 55 Russians and including a close personal friend of Putin, Viktor Medvedchuk.
The messaging is if you do what I say, you get rewarded, I can be "nice", but if you don't you will suffer pain, a lot of pain.
And what does he want?
Well again it's obvious, Putin is so easy to read in many respects. What he wants is to keep what he currently occupies in Ukraine so LPR, DPR, Crimea plus areas in Kherson and Zaporizhiya. The latter representing the land corridor to Crimea.
By holding referenda in newly occupied territories to join Russia he can then argue they are Russian territories giving him the excuse to use nuclear weapons in their defence - as Russian nuclear doctrine allows use of nukes when Russia itself is threatened.
That's the threat albeit he kind of ignores the fact that areas he considers Russia - illegally annexed Crimea and Russia proper (numerous military/infrastructure sites, particularly around Belgorod) have been attacked by Ukraine with no nuclear response from Russia thus far.
The latter does suggest that this is all bluff. And it is being read this way by the West - see public statements by NATO chief Stoltenberg, et al. He is doing this from a position of weakness - losing the war in Ukraine. And the Western response has been encouraging - committing to step up support for Ukraine.
I was speaking yesterday with various Russia/Putin watchers/experts I trust, and the overwhelming message was that you only deal with Putin by showing him strength and facing him down.
And encouragingly that's certainly the message from the Biden administration. The threat to use nukes is "nuclear" and the U.S. will be working overtime with third countries - China, India et al to get them to impress on Putin this is a no go. Indeed, if Russia uses nukes it will be a green light to nuclear proliferation and China et al get that. Saudi, Turkey, Iran will work overtime to get nukes.
I am confident that China will not be happy with Putin's posturing, and I think we can read from the summit in Samarkand over the past week that Beijing and New Delhi will be taking a tough line now with Putin - “stand down you idiot," or diplomatic words to that effect.
He can still use nukes and he could well build up here by ordering exercises for nuclear forces again - so far we are not seeing anything unusual in terms of nuclear force activity, but that could change. He could deploy a tactical nuclear weapon outside of theatre for "demonstration" purposes. Perhaps in the Black Sea.
Notable yesterday on BBC R4 that one Moscow-based political commentator who thought Putin would use nukes (on NATO) said he would not use them on our brothers in Ukraine - [but mate it is fine then to kill, torture, rape and otherwise commit genocide against Ukrainians but not to kill them by launching a nuclear weapon?]
Problems at home though for Putin with demonstrations against mobilization (not the war in Ukraine - Russians appear willing to let Russians kill Ukrainians in Ukraine but get upset at the prospect of their boys dying in Ukraine) in bigger cities and reports of 2,000 arrests. Males arrested at demonstrations are likely to be drafted into the military - oh, the irony. Borders and flights are reported to be full of Russians trying to get the last flight out. This just shows to me that Russia cannot fully mobilize to win this war. Russians don't want to fight and die to steal someone else's country.
I still think this ends badly for Putin - shot to the head from some Russian patriot in his entourage. There is opposition within the Kremlin - people like Patrushchev, former "rival" Sergei Ivanov, there is a cadre of more sophisticated career siloviki who I think could move against him as this gets worse for Russia and the Russian military losses mount. I think there are plenty of people who don't want to get into a nuclear war with NATO. I think the US is talking to these people, surely it is?
I still think here that we are approaching the end game in Ukraine, and for Putin. He has lost the war in Ukraine, there is no winning strategy there for him now - only question now is is if Putin loses Russia, the rest of the near abroad, remaining allies like China, his own life, as well as Ukraine.
End game for Putin. Hopefully not for us all as well.
But to summarize, my read of Putin’s actions in recent days is that Putin wants to talk (maybe the Chinese told him to and he is now just trying to position to take some leverage into those talks - he is bluffing on nukes) that’s the message he is giving (Turkish contacts confirm the message from Russia). He wants to keep what he has. Ukraine will never concede the land corridor to Mariupol - they can take it back. But I could see a ceasefire deal with some agreement for future talks around Crimea and DPR and LPR, so back to Feb 24 positions. And if he accepts that I think he could still sell this at home - “we fought hard, but ended up fighting NATO but halted them at the borders of Russia. We gave them all a bloody nose”.
That's Putin's way out, if he does not take it, I don't see him surviving. The longer the war goes on, inevitably the worse this gets for Putin. I think this is his last chance to secure some kind of peace, and survive in Russia. Let’s hope he sees it all this way too.
Putin the Loser is still likely better for him than Putin the Dead. As my gran used to say, “you are dead for a very long time”.