Express & Star

Toby Neal: Why the free world is holding its breath

This time next week the results will be in. And guess what? It will turn out Vladimir Putin was right all along.

Is he bluffing?

It’s a shocker. All those folk in “liberated” parts of the Ukraine will be shown to have been desperate to be part of Mother Russia.

It will be the most decisive piece of polling since the referendum 20 years ago which showed that 100 per cent of Iraqi voters cast their ballot in favour of Saddam Hussein, an improvement on the first referendum on his rule in 1995 when he scored a mere 99.96 per cent.

Joy and dancing in the streets then amid the ruined buildings for the citizens in those parts of the Ukraine – correction, former Ukraine – who can look forward to a future under the rule of a dictator and international pariah.

The dead and the fled will not have voted, and those who think Putin is an evil warmonger might decide it is not in their best interests to vote, and even if they do it will be pointless as we all know even now what the result will be, as this is Putin’s poll and he is a man who gets what he wants.

There are two scenarios, neither of which is comforting.

One is that he is Mad Vlad, which means his threat to defend the newly acquired areas of Mother Russia “by all means” – thinly disguised code for nuclear or other unconventional weapons – is a serious one from a deranged leader. The other is that he is perfectly sane, a desperate leader with his back to the wall who is prepared to do literally anything to avoid defeat and humiliation.

The upshot is that in the next few weeks the West and the rest of the world has to contemplate the What If? question. Having piled hi-tech weaponry into the Ukraine, and having invested moral capital in the struggle to free the areas which have fallen under Russian occupation, the West isn’t suddenly going to tell the Ukrainians they must now give up the fight and accept a new reality.

They will continue to try to recapture territory which has newly been redefined by Putin as Mother Russia. It will bring to a head the most serious threat of nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis almost exactly 60 years ago.

That dangerous stand-off was defused because Kennedy and Khrushchev were rational men who reached an agreement which gave both sides something.

As things stand in Ukraine, it is hard to see Putin reaching any agreement with Ukraine or the West. In his self-image, he is a raise-the-stakes sort of guy.

What if he isn’t bluffing? What if he resorts to using nuclear weapons? Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, or rather removed all former Soviet weapons stationed on its territory.

That country is now embroiled in the first war in history in which both sides have the most modern hi-tech weapons, and lessons are being learned every day.

In the face of precision anti-armour weapons, Russia’s tanks have proven death traps, and drones and Western intelligence have played a key role in levelling the killing field within Ukraine.

Back to the future, the unthinkable day when Putin says enough is enough, and it’s time to flex his muscles and deploy his nukes.

It could start with a little demonstration, a shot across the bows so to speak, by irradiating somewhere out of the way to send that “I’m not bluffing” message.

Step forward Joe Biden. Once Putin has broken the nuclear taboo, it will fall to the American president to respond – or not respond.

To date Biden has been keen to support Ukraine without escalating the situation any more than he has to, but the use of nuclear weapons would change everything.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the Pentagon is working up some graduated and proportionate responses to such an obscenity.

We have to hope that we never find out what they are.

This week, after the ending of the official period of mourning for the Queen’s passing, what has been described as normal politics resumed in Britain.

There is, though, nothing normal about where we find ourselves at the moment.

As the autumn unfolds, the free world will be holding its breath.