Could Putin go nuclear? 

When national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned of “catastrophic consequences” for Russia if it uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine on ABC News’s Sunday Show, This Week, he was acknowledging that the war in Ukraine has entered a dangerous new phase.

The warning, he said, had been communicated “directly, privately to the Russians at very high levels.” And it comes after Vladimir Putin, having suffered major territorial setbacks in Eastern Ukraine, last week announced a partial mobilization, called up reservists and made a nuclear threat that was more immediate and explicit than he has done in the past.

In what amounts to a redrawing of Putin’s red line, Russia is in the process of annexing parts of Ukraine. Sham referenda were held last week. He followed that with a threat to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is attacked by the West. On Saturday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that this newly annexed territory would be under “the full protection of the state.” The upshot is that the gap between Putin’s nuclear hypothetical and the status quo has narrowed.

The use of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russian leader might be so horrifying that it is hard to imagine, but might an erratic and weakened leader running out of options consider it?

Writing for The Spectator, Paul Wood contemplates what a cornered Putin will do next. He quotes a Kremlin observer describing Putin as a man “driven by a dark sense of mission” who could well persuade himself that drastic measures are needed to save Mother Russia. Others Wood talks to insist that Putin has been a bluffer his whole career and this time is no different.

But whether Putin is bluffing or serious doesn’t change the fact that the world is only a hair’s breadth away from a major nuclear crisis. Even if he has no intention of using them, Putin could move tactical nuclear weapons into Ukraine. That would trigger a very uncomfortable standoff.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky told Face the Nation Sunday that he doesn’t think Putin is bluffing, adding, “I think the world is deterring it and containing this threat; we need to keep putting pressure on him and not allow him to continue.”

Zelensky’s warning makes clear just how dangerous a position the world is in. His Russian counterpart keeps doubling-down on a conflict that is not going to plan. The inescapable truth is that a weaker Putin is not necessarily a less dangerous Putin. And that frightening paradox hangs over the war in Ukraine as long as he is in the Kremlin.

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Manchin’s make or break week

By the end of the week, the Democrats will either have escaped a row over Joe Manchin’s energy permitting proposal with only minor embarrassment or find themselves stuck in a very bruising dust-up that threatens a government shutdown and highlights one of the party’s major weak spots just weeks ahead of the midterms.

Congress has until the weekend to pass a government spending bill and Manchin hopes it will come with his permitting legislation attached. In a telling comment to the Washington Post on Sunday, Manchin said, “We have never had an opportunity where we’ve had this many Democrats that would vote for permitting reform. Never. Never.”

But even in these circumstances Manchin says he is “hoping for 48 [Democratic votes], but 45 would be a very nice number.” The West Virginia Senator is caught between the two parties, with Republicans far from sold on the legislation. Plenty for Manchin and majority leader Chuck Schumer to ponder before senators return on Tuesday.

Trump’s ‘psychiatrist’

“I love being with her, she’s like my psychiatrist,” said Trump of Maggie Haberman, the New York Times reporter and the author of Confidence Man, a hotly anticipated book about the former president published next week.

The line appears in an Atlantic serialization from the book. Haberman didn’t read too much into the flattery. She writes: “The reality is that he treats everyone like they are his psychiatrists — reporters, government aides, and members of Congress, friends and pseudo-friends and rally attendees and White House staff and customers. All present a chance for him to vent or test reactions or gauge how his statements are playing or discover how he is feeling. He works things out in real time in front of all of us. Along the way, he reoriented an entire country to react to his moods and emotions.”

This may not be the most newsworthy line from the article, which is causing a bit of a splash, but it does get to the heart of Haberman’s character study. As does one particularly revealing moment, when Trump tells Haberman that the question he gets more than any other is, “If you had it to do again, would you have done it?” The “it” here is running for president. Trump’s answer to his own question: “The answer is, yeah, I think so. Because here’s the way I look at it. I have so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are.”

What you should be reading today

Amber Athey: Will the GOP blow the midterms?
Oliver Basciano: Brace yourself for a coup in Brazil
John Allen Gay: How two deaths shook Iran to its core
Corey DeAngelisWall Street Journal: Democrat Josh Shapiro defects on school choice
Bernard S. Sharfman, National Review: On climate change, the SEC swings for the fences
Bari Weiss, Common Sense: The great Canadian mass graves hoax

Poll watch

President Biden job approval
Approve: 42.9 percent
Disapprove: 53.4 percent
Net approval: -10.5 (RCP Average)

How concerned are Americans about Ukraine being defeated by Russia?
May
Extremely/very: 55 percent
Somewhat: 28 percent
Not too/not at all: 16 percent

September
Extremely/very: 38 percent
Somewhat: 34 percent
Not too/not at all: 26 percent (Pew)