The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Facts on the ground matter more than rants at the Kremlin

Russian leader Vladimir Putin delivers remarks during a ceremony in Moscow on Friday to mark the Kremlin's formal annexation of four Ukrainian territories. (Maksim Blinov/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ratcheted up his aggressiveness to a disturbing and dangerous degree over the past few days, both rhetorically and in terms of policy. Perhaps the only thing more brazen than his illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, based on a sham referendum in the territories, was the speech he gave on Friday to justify it.

Mr. Putin rambled widely and tendentiously through world history to depict the West as a sinister force bent — for centuries — on the subjugation of Russia and motivated, today, by “outright Satanism.” He warned the internationally recognized government in Kyiv, and its supporters in the United States and elsewhere, that the people of the purportedly annexed regions are Russian citizens “forever.” Then he alluded to the “precedent” set by U.S. use of atomic weaponry in World War II. Plainly, Mr. Putin, having failed to defeat Ukraine militarily, is attempting to bully both that country and its friends into accepting Russian sovereignty over the 15 percent or so of Ukrainian territory that it has managed to occupy, with Russian nuclear weapons use as the implied “or else.”

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.

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Scary stuff — but an appropriate response begins with remembering that facts on the ground matter more than rants at the Kremlin. Indeed, Mr. Putin’s language is escalating precisely because his strategic position is deteriorating. Russia does not even control all of the territory it supposedly annexed and, in fact, Ukrainian forces have recently retaken Russian-held areas equal to more than 3,500 square miles. The “partial” mobilization of some 300,000 reservists Mr. Putin ordered in response to those setbacks is off to a troubled start, with thousands of men crossing Russia’s borders to escape military service; some 100 protests, including 20 or so attacks against recruiting offices, have occurred, according to the Economist. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military was poised on Friday to seize a key transportation hub, Lyman, in Donetsk, which is one of the four regions Mr. Putin claimed to annex. If the town’s Russian garrison falls, it could lead to additional Russian retreats from this supposedly Russian territory, as well as from the neighboring Luhansk region.

The best thing President Biden and his fellow NATO leaders can do is keep up sanctions and arms shipments that weaken Russia’s military and empower Ukraine to fight back. Mr. Biden indicated on Friday he would do so, with another $1.1 billion weapons package in the works. Symbolically and psychologically important as it was for President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce, in response to Mr. Putin’s threats, that Ukraine will seek immediate NATO membership, there is no need for Western leaders to act on that complicated question. Instead, they should finalize and implement their plan for a price cap on Russian crude exports and accelerate preparations to keep European homes and businesses supplied with energy through the winter.

Also on the agenda should be diplomatic outreach to — or pressure on — India, China and Turkey, all of which seem increasingly weary of Mr. Putin’s war and might help persuade him to abandon it. Mr. Putin’s latest escalations, dangerous as they are, show that he senses the endgame approaching — and fears losing it.

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