Why Vladimir Putin Is Threatening Wider War with the West


As Russian President Vladimir Putin defiantly grinds through a third year of his unprovoked war in Ukraine, two perplexing questions increasingly come to mind:

How is the Russian economy surviving international sanctions, high inflation, labor shortages caused by hundreds of thousands of men at war or abroad evading conscription and soaring military spending of $122 billion this year alone?

And, given the rising cost and toll of dead and seriously injured, estimated by British military intelligence to be 500,000, why is Putin trying to provoke a wider conflict with provocations against NATO-allied neighbors and the United States? 

The economic question can be answered by the fact that war has been unifying for Putin’s country. Russians have been nurtured by 20 years of state propaganda to see the Ukraine war as an existential battle to defeat Western encroachment into former Soviet territory that Putin insists should now be part of Russia.

War is also good for the military-industrial complex. Russian production of munitions and armor has ramped up to replenish the weapons and ammunition being squandered on battlefields by poorly trained and undisciplined fighters mustered from Russian prisons and remote regions where returning body bags draw less notice.

Replenishing the ranks of fallen soldiers and mercenaries demands higher pay and benefits for the fighters and their families, as does hiring for civilian working-class jobs keeping Russian factories running at full production capacity. Real incomes rose by 5.8 percent last year and have continued that pace in the first quarter of 2024, reports Carnegie Politika, a digital publication of the Berlin-based Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. 

Monthly wages for jobs like drivers, machine operators, welders and garment industry workers have more than tripled since the end of 2021, from $350 to about $1,300.

Millions of Russians who used to travel abroad for vacations or education are now largely confined to domestic venues. International air, sea and rail transportation have been restricted by Western sanctions on Russia for its invasion of a sovereign neighbor. Would-be travelers of military age are prohibited from leaving the country and some foreign states deny Russians visas.

To harvest that newly discretionary cash, Putin has imposed major tax hikes to finance the war and rising wages, with income tax up 14% and profit tax 25% higher since the February 2022 invasion.

Russia’s Finance Ministry has introduced attractive new mortgage incentives for buyers to invest their growing savings. The value of Russian mortgages nationwide grew by 34.5% in 2023 and demand remains high so far this year. Most home buyers have been able to make 30% down payments on 20-year mortgages, raising home ownership to record levels.

Despite a more dubious long-term economic outlook – natural resource exports of oil, gas, diamonds and gold are declining – Russians appear to trust their banking system. The central Bank of Russia reports ruble quantities held in Russian accounts grew by almost 20% last year to nearly three times the level in 2021.

On the more puzzling question of why Putin seems so keen on provoking World War III, he is gambling that a threat to a NATO country will spur the Biden administration into coming to the defense of U.S. allies and spooking voters on the eve of the Nov. 5 presidential election.

Putin has always been obsessed with NATO and angry over the induction of former Soviet republics and satellites into the 32-nation Western alliance. He has no respect for self-determination in countries spun off from the Soviet Union after its 1991 collapse – a dissolution negotiated by the last leaders of the Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. In Putin’s mind, all territory once part of the Soviet sphere of influence or imperial-era Russia will always belong to the Kremlin.

At last week’s annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Putin made clear he has realigned Russia’s political and economic interests with other autocratic leaders, including China’s Communists and Saudi Arabia. He also invited developing nations this year that he sees as potential future allies.

Shunned by Western democracies that have condemned his Ukraine aggression, Putin touted new alliances with third-world countries like Zimbabwe and Afghanistan whose leaders attended his St. Petersburg conference.

Russian trade with Zimbabwe was a paltry $168 million last year, about 5% of the $300 billion in commerce with the European Union before Putin sent his troops into Ukraine.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Saudi energy minister, the senior Omani trade and commerce official and a Taliban leader lent a modicum of international validation for Putin, who was excluded from the coinciding 80th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landing that was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

Putin’s diplomatic maneuvering included dispatch of a naval force to the Caribbean Sea for military exercises in the eastern U.S. maritime region. The Cuban Foreign Ministry announced that a flotilla of Russian vessels, including a nuclear-powered submarine (reportedly carrying no nuclear missiles) and three other warships will make a six-day port call in Havana starting June 12.

Russian long-range bombers are expected to fly along the U.S. Atlantic coast in a muscle-flexing exercise accompanying the port call, CBS News reported over the weekend. U.S. officials told reporters in Washington that they do not consider the Russian-Cuban engagement “concerning.”

What has been more worrisome to U.S. intelligence is Putin’s threat to share his long-range missiles with anti-Western allies who might use them against the United States or NATO countries.

President Joe Biden last week green-lighted Ukraine’s use of U.S-supplied missiles to target Russian military bases attacking Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Putin has reacted with virulent warnings that any such use of U.S.-supplied munitions would validate a Russian retaliation against the Western countries providing those weapons to Ukraine.

Asked at the St. Petersburg forum whether Russia might resort to using nuclear arms, Putin said the conditions for utilizing that arsenal are clearly spelled out in Moscow’s security doctrine.

“For some reason, they believe in the West that Russia will never use it. Look at what is written there,” Putin said of Russia’s nuclear doctrine. “If somebody’s actions threaten our sovereignty and territorial integrity, we consider it possible to use all means at our disposal.”

A career KGB agent during the Soviet era, Putin has been harassing his Baltic neighbors in recent weeks in what appear to be attempts to draw NATO members into conflict with Russia. Russian border guards in late May removed 24 of the 50 navigational buoys in the Narva River that forms much of the border between Russia and Estonia.

Days before the buoys disappeared overnight, the Russian Defense Ministry published a proposal to unilaterally revise Russia’s maritime border in the eastern Baltic Sea. The proposal was later deleted from the official portal where it was disclosed but not before rattling the littoral states surrounding the Gulf of Finland, all but Russia now members of NATO since Putin’s Ukraine invasion prompted Sweden and Finland to join the Western alliance after centuries of nonalignment.

Rear Adm. Ewa Skoog Haslum, Sweden’s navy commander, reported in April that suspected Russian military meddling with Baltic GPS systems operating at airports and along shipping lanes was endangering aviation and navigation safety. Estonian researchers have implicated Russia in the GPS interference via electromagnetic warfare capabilities from Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave along the Baltic Sea that borders Poland and Lithuania.

Skoog Haslum said the interference was allowing Russian vessels to turn off their automatic identification systems, allowing them to operate undetected in what she called “ghost shipping.” Russian aircraft flying without their ID detection enabled likewise pose a danger to aviation as air traffic controllers don’t have a full picture of what planes are in the air.

As European Union states held elections over the weekend, media reported heightened interference with deep-fake sites that pose as legitimate digital news media, including Britain’s The Guardian and Germany’s mass-circulation Bild Zeitung. The doppelgänger, or ghost media, have been spreading false information about democratic party policies and proposals with the aim of spurring voters to choose far-right candidates.

CNN reported one such fake story on a website mimicking Bild described how a teenage cyclist bled to death after streetlights were turned off to save electricity – cutbacks the false story said were imposed by the Berlin government because of an energy crisis caused by sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

U.S. intelligence warned officials in Washington that Putin interfered in the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to the White House, and similar deceptions are likely underway again. At their Helsinki summit in 2018, Trump mocked reporters’ questions about whether Russia had helped him get elected by turning to Putin and asking him if he interfered. When the Kremlin leader said “no,” Trump said he believed him.

Putin claimed in a rare press engagement with the international media in St. Petersburg last week to be indifferent to the outcome of this year’s U.S. presidential election. But he echoed Trump’s false claims that the American judicial system has been corrupted in order to bring felony charges against the former president. He accused the Biden administration of using the court system “as part of the internal political struggles.”

Trump himself has been suggesting Putin is in league with him. He posted on his Truth Social website last week that jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich would be freed from a Russian prison “almost immediately after the Election.”

“Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, will do that for me, but not for anyone else, and WE WILL BE PAYING NOTHING!”

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. It is my perception that Russia’s capability to fight a war of any duration is limited. Russian armaments at the beginning of the Ukraine invasion were dependent upon the stockpile of USSR-era tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. Evidence is that the quality of this stockpile of depot armaments is poor as corruption and austere military budgets have allowed the stockpiles to rust away. As such the economics of Russia matter little. What matters is whether Russian industrial capacity has the capability to replenish its stocks of Soviet-era armaments as Ukraine, utilizing Western standoff munitions and drones, whittles away Russia’s capability. Presuming that this is an accurate interpretation of the situation, Putin’s actions to deflect the media, to issue meaningless threats of nuclear blackmail, and to pursue other asymmetrical warfare techniques. United States media takes these statements at face value rather than considering them as simply another way for Russia to win the war through loss of Western will.

  2. Putin is a fascist. Many people seem averse to using that word, so just say “autocrat.”

    The answer to the headline question is: because he’s losing the war with Ukraine. Not only the war per se; Putin’s actions are leading to a weakening of Russia in a number of ways in addition to the wholesale destruction of significant portions of their military assets.

    I recommend the careful historical and analytical work by Timothy Snyder to understand what has been unfolding in Central and Eastern Europe for the past century or so. “Bloodlands” and “Black Earth” for the earlier times, and “The Road to Unfreedom” focused on Russia and Ukraine up to and through the election of Trump in 2016. Yes, Putin did manipulate Western democracies, including our own, and continues to do so. Snyder’s description of Putin’s regime’s constant stream of lies as “implausibly deniable” is a great invention: Everyone knows he’s lying but because he denies the lie in the same breath, everyone is left unable to say a word in response. Does that sound like someone running for president of the U.S.?

    Snyder reads and watches source material in the original (multi-lingual fluency!) and sources his books extensively. He is an expert on fascism, and it’s on the rise. Scary stuff.


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