The Daily Telegraph

Putin says he isn’t bluffing – but there are no aces in his hand

- By Dominic Nicholls ASSOCIATE EDITOR, DEFENCE

‘I’m not bluffing,” says the man holding a pair of fours, a seven, an ace and the queen of spades. Of course, these can still do damage – in a game of pairs, for example, or Sweaty Betty.

Vladimir Putin’s trump card though, and the one thing he wants those outside his country to focus on, is the ace; Russia’s nuclear weapons.

He sees the threat of the use of such weapons as the easiest way to drive a wedge between Volodymyr Zelensky and his external supporters. It may even shatter the ad hoc alliance backing Ukraine, he figures.

In his speech yesterday morning, Putin’s references to the use of nuclear weapons were largely for external consumptio­n and, with caution, can be accepted as unlikely.

Putin had to respond to his failing war and, in particular, Ukraine’s lightning advance in the north-east last week.

He had to address the increasing­ly bellicose language from the ultraright in Russia; those for whom no escalation is enough to fend off the prospect of national humiliatio­n.

Putin fears them and what they could do for his position in power more than he fears any backlash from the Russian public. He had to admit a level of failure, even if the words were couched in barbed wire.

The Russian people are not stupid, however.

They will see that all is not as advertised in this “special military operation” and many will baulk at the thought of their menfolk being called back to the colours.

Whether they are brave enough to resist is another question.

There is also much risk for Putin in ordering partial mobilisati­on. Arming and organising large numbers of disgruntle­d people could backfire. Strong leadership is required throughout Russia’s chain of command, and that has been shown to be sorely lacking in the war so far.

Ultimately though, even with additional troops, it is hard to see the battlefiel­d reality changing much.

In a war of national survival, Ukraine can call on many more people than Russia. Their motivation for fighting will be stronger too.

Ukraine has a much clearer strategic purpose in this war, is better led, and has used its experience in combat to learn and innovate.

Putin’s speech differed little from the playground bully’s: “Do what I want or I’ll hurt you.”

He directed his words at Ukraine, the West, to his own people, and to the British public, all the while seeking to pander to those he fears himself.

Putin is scared for his own position and of the consequenc­es of the choices made by his own damaged mind.

Even so, the stakes are high; this is no game. History will not thank those who blink now.

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