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AnalysisThis kind of brinksmanship didn't end after Cold War

Setting up face-off with West, Russian annexation marks harrowing moment in invasion

World faces threat of nuclear war as Ukraine’s application to join NATO sets scene for confrontation between Moscow and global powers

People make preparations for a concert at the Red Square, with constructions reading the words ''Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia'', and the St. Basil's Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum on the background, in Moscow, Russia, September 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
People make preparations for a concert at the Red Square, with constructions reading the words ''Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia'', and the St. Basil's Cathedral and Lenin Mausoleum on the background, in Moscow, Russia, September 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

LONDON (AP) — 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 US “shock-and-awe” war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq two years later; the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 that 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 as it did with Crimea in 2014.

Coming seven months into the conflict and with near-daily nuclear threats by backs-to-the-wall Kremlin leaders, Putin chillingly 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 brinkmanship had ended with the 1980s when the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then US 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during celebrations marking the incorporation of regions of Ukraine to join Russia in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

After a series of humiliating setbacks on the battlefield, Putin has made it painfully clear that any attack on 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 UK ambassador to Belarus.

Gould-Davies, who is a 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.

Pallets of 155 mm shells ultimately bound for Ukraine are loaded by the 436th Aerial Port Squadron, April 29, 2022, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (AP/Alex Brandon)

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?

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