PARIS — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in a speech on Wednesday that was a reminder of how easily the war in Ukraine could spread, doubled down on his nuclear threat, accused the West of seeking to “destroy” his country, and suggested that Ukrainians are mere pawns of the “military machine of the collective West.”
In a videotaped address to the nation, he effectively conceded that the war he started on Feb. 24 has not gone as he wished. By calling up roughly 300,000 reservists to fight on what he called a 620-mile front, and abandoning the original objective of demilitarizing and “de-Nazifying” all of Ukraine, he acknowledged something he had consistently denied: the reality and growing resistance of a unified Ukrainian nation.
But Mr. Putin cornered is Mr. Putin at his most dangerous. That was one of the core lessons of his hardscrabble youth that he took from the furious reaction of a rat he cornered on a stairwell in what was then Leningrad.
His speech at once inverted a war of aggression against a neighbor into one of defense of the “motherland,” a theme that resonates with Russians, and warned the West in unmistakable terms — “this is not a bluff” — that the attempt to weaken or defeat Russia could provoke nuclear cataclysm.
“Russia won its defensive wars against Napoleon and Hitler, and the most important thing Putin did here from a psychological perspective was to claim this, too, is a defensive war,” said Michel Eltchaninoff, the French author of “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin.” “It was an aggressive war. Now it’s the defense of the Russian world against the Western attempt at dismemberment.”
That “Russkiy Mir,” or imagined world imbued with some inalienable Russian essence, grew in size as Mr. Putin suggested in the speech that the country’s nuclear arsenal could be used to defend eastern and southern areas of Ukraine captured since the war began.
Mr. Putin said Russia would support imminent referendums on the future of four regions in Ukraine. This method, described this week by President Emmanuel Macron of France as “simulacra” of referendums, was used in Crimea in 2014 to justify Russian annexation.
It seems likely that the referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south — which the United States and Western allies have denounced as “sham” votes — would also lead to Russian annexation. At that point, a Ukrainian attack next month on the city of Kherson in the south, captured by Russia at the start of the war, could, in Russia’s view, be viewed as an attack on Russian soil, justifying a nuclear riposte.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive is now underway in the Kherson region, and senior Ukrainian officials have vowed to recapture the city.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will of course use all means at our disposal to defend Russia and our people,” Mr. Putin said.
His speech, which may of course be a bluff despite his denial, nevertheless placed before the West a dilemma that has been inherent in its policy from the start of the war: How far can intense military and logistical support of Ukraine — effectively everything short of NATO troops on the ground — go without setting off nuclear confrontation?
It was also an attempt to divide the West ahead of a winter that promises to be hard, with inflation and energy costs rising. While the Biden administration has little apparent interest in diplomacy at this stage, France, Germany and Italy still seek the “dialogue” with Russia that Mr. Macron mentioned in his speech on Tuesday to the United Nations, a dialogue judged necessary, he said, because “we seek peace.”