LONDON — There are moments in history that appear as critical to the world as they are terrifying.
Just this century: the 9/11 attacks in 2001; the U.S. “shock-and-awe? war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq two years later; the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 killed millions and upended life; and most recently the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, bringing ruinous war back to Europe.
Friday seemed one of those watershed moments as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties to illegally annex a large swath of eastern and southern Ukraine, like it did with Crimea in 2014.
Coming seven months into the conflict and with near daily nuclear threats by a backs-to-the wall Kremlin leaders, Putin chilllingly vowed to protect the newly annexed regions by “all available means.” Almost immediately, Ukraine’s president countered by applying to join the NATO military alliance, setting Russia up to face off against the West.
Any thought that this kind of harrowing brinksmanship had ended with the 1980s when the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then U.S. President Ronald Reagan eased the Cold War and the specter of nuclear Armageddon, is now gone.
Even with the horror of Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki burned on humanity’s collective consciousness, the world finds itself once again contemplating the possible use of nuclear weapons.
After a series of humiliating setbacks on the battlefield, Putin has made it painfully clear that any attack on the the newly annexed regions would be construed as an attack on Russia. He would use any means available in his vast arsenal — the nod to nuclear weapons was barely veiled — and wasn’t bluffing, he said.
“We’re in an escalation phase, and Russia now is faced with a series of more extreme choices than before,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, the former U.K. ambassador to Belarus.
Gould-Davies, who is senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Russia’s attempts to win the war by more moderate means have failed, and Putin is now having to increase the “range and severity of the measures” Russia is taking, including annexation and nuclear threats.
Even as Moscow annexed the four Ukrainian regions in a move that will not be recognized by an overwhelming majority of the world, tens of thousands of Russian men called up to fight in the war were fleeing Russia.
Former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov on Friday linked Russia’s reversals in the war with the annexation push. “It looks like an attempt to respond somehow, and it looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” he said.
Driving Putin are years of perceived humiliation at the hands of the West after the demise of the Soviet Union. And the fact that previous bloodshed and atrocities committed against Chechnya and Syria escaped severe international intervention seemed to give him the conviction that he had carte blanche to rebuild an Imperial Russia.
That’s not the case now.
Billions of dollars in United States and European military aid are helping highly motivated Ukrainian forces liberate territory in the war amid clear signals from Washington that ”catastrophic consequences” will follow any use by Moscow of non-conventional weapons.
On a day like Friday, Sept. 30, as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters a flammable, even more dangerous phase, the question remains; Is a wider war looming with devastating results for the world, perhaps not seen since 1939-1945?
Tamer Fakahany is AP’s deputy director for global news coordination and has helped direct international coverage for the AP for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany. Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.