There have been periods in history that seem to be equally terrible and important for the world.
Just in this century alone, there have been the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. “shock-and-awe” invasion of Iraq two years later, the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 that claimed millions of lives and upended society, and most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, which has brought destructive war back to Europe.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin signed agreements on Friday to forcibly annex a sizable portion of eastern and southern Ukraine, as it did with Crimea in 2014, it appeared to be one of those watershed moments.
Putin chillingly swore to defend the recently annexed territories by “all available measures” seven months into the conflict and in the face of nearly daily nuclear threats from Kremlin leaders who were at their wit’s end. Almost immediately, the president of Ukraine retaliated by submitting an application to join the NATO military alliance, pitting Russia against the West.
The 1980s, when the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then-US President Ronald Reagan relaxed the Cold War and the threat of nuclear Armageddon, put an end to any notion that this kind of terrifying brinkmanship existed any longer.
The world is once again debating the deployment of nuclear weapons, despite the tragedy of Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki being etched into the collective memory of humanity.
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that any attack on the recently seized regions would be interpreted as an attack on Russia after a string of humiliating defeats on the battlefield. He added that he wasn’t kidding and that he would employ any method in his extensive arsenal (a nod to nuclear weapons was barely concealed).
The former British ambassador to Belarus, Nigel Gould-Davies, declared that the situation was escalating and that Russia was now being presented with a number of more radical options than before.
According to Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Putin is now forced to increase the “range and severity of the measures” Russia is taking, including annexation and nuclear threats. This is because Russia’s attempts to win the war by more moderate means have failed.
Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who had been called up to participate in the conflict were fleeing Russia at the same time as Moscow annexed the four regions of Ukraine, a move that will not be accepted by the vast majority of the rest of the world.