WASHINGTON — For nine weeks, President Joe Biden and Western allies have emphasized the need to keep the war for Ukraine inside Ukraine.
Now the fear in Washington and European capitals is that the conflict will soon turn into a wider warspreading to neighboring states, cyberspace, and NATO countries suddenly facing a Russian gas cutoff.
In the long term, such an expansion could turn into a more direct conflict between Washington and Moscow reminiscent of the Cold War, as each seeks to undermine the power of the other.
In the past three days, the US defense secretary has called for an effort to downgrade the Russian military’s ability so that it cannot invade another country for years to come.
The Russians have cut the gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria which joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ursula von der Leyen president of the European Commission, immediately denounced the measure as a “blackmail instrument”.
The explosions have rocked a disputed area of Moldavia a natural next target for the Russians, and gas depots and even a missile factory in Russia have mysteriously caught fire or been directly attacked by Ukrainian forces.
And with increasing frequency, the Russians are reminding the world of the size and power of their nuclear arsenal, an unsubtle warning that if the president’s conventional forces Vladimir Putin face more humiliating losses, he has other options.
American and European officials say they see no evidence that the Russians are mobilizing their nuclear forces on the battlefield, but behind the scenes officials are already discussing how they might react to a Russian nuclear test, or demonstration explosion, on the Black Sea or on the territory of Ukraine.
“Nobody wants this war to escalate any more than it already has,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday when asked about Russia’s nuclear threats.
“Certainly no one wants to see, or no one should want to see, escalate to the nuclear realm.”
US and European officials say their fears are based in part on a growing conviction that the conflict could “go on for some time,” as Secretary of State recently put it. Antony Blinken.
Talk of a diplomatic resolution or even a ceasefire, attempted at various points by the leaders of France, Israel and Turkey, among others, have become extinct.
Ukrainian and Russian forces are digging in for the long haul, focusing on what they hope will be an artillery war in the south and east of the country, where Russia has concentrated its forces after a humiliating withdrawal of kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and other key places and cities.
“Putin is not ready to back down, and neither are the Ukrainians, so there will be more blood to come,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a British think tank.
At the same time, the resolve of the United States and Europe to help Ukraine defeat the Russians has hardened, in part after atrocities in Bucha and other Russian-occupied cities became apparent, and even Germany overcame their objections. initials and sent artillery and armored vehicles.
Seth G. Jones, who directs the European Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Wednesday that “the risk of a growing war it’s bad right now”.
“Russian casualties continue to mount, and the United States is committed to sending more powerful weapons that are causing those casualties,” Jones said.
Sooner or later, he added, the Russian military intelligence could start targeting those arms shipments within NATO borders.
Not all lines of communication between Washington and Moscow have collapsed.
The United States and Russia announced a prisoner swap early Wednesday.
The exchange took place in secret Turkeywhere Trevor Reed, a former Marine, was swapped for a Russian pilot whom the Justice Department had long called “a seasoned international drug trafficker.”
But even that had an air of throwback to the Cold War, highlighting how much of the current conflict is also a power struggle between Washington and Moscow.
The moment seemed to reinforce the argument that Stephen Kotkin, a professor at the Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, did recently in Foreign Affairs when he wrote that “the end of the original Cold War was a mirage” as the effort to integrate Russia into the West slowly collapsed.
Biden has endorsed the theory that Putin has plans that go beyond Ukraine.
The invasion, he said the day it began, February 24, was “always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire to have an empire for any means necessary”.
But so far, the war has remained largely within Ukraine’s geographic borders.
The allies said their goal was to get Russia to withdraw its forces “irreversibly,” as Blinken put it, and to respect Ukraine’s borders as they existed. before the invasion.
Biden refused to impose a no-fly zone that would pit American and Russian pilots against each other.
Putin denounced the entry of Western weapons to help the Ukrainian army, but has never attacked those supply lines inside NATO territory.
Now, there are signs that the subjection if it’s breaking.
When Gazpromthe Russian energy giant, cut off the flow to Poland and Bulgaria, was clearly a warning sign that Germany, which relies heavily on Russian gas, could be next.
Russia was using its most powerful economic weapon, sending the message that it could bring pain and, next winter, considerable cold to Eastern and Western Europe without firing a shot.
US officials said it was clearly an effort to fragmentary to the NATO allies, who have so far stuck together.
Coincidentally or not, Putin’s move came just after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went beyond the administration’s repeated statement that he wanted to ensure that Russia emerged strategically weakened from its experience in Ukraine.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do the kinds of things it has done by invading Ukraine,” Austin said, a phrase that seemed to suggest the United States wanted to erode Russian military power for years, presumably as long as Putin remains. in the power.
The export controls that the United States imposed on microelectronic components key that Russia needs to produce its missiles and tanks seem designed to do just that.
Some Europeans questioned whether Washington’s war goals had broadened from helping Ukraine defend itself, which enjoys widespread support, to harming Russia itself, a controversial goal that would fuel the Russian narrative that Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are to defend against NATO.
Some administration officials insist that Austin’s comments were overinterpreted and that he was not suggesting a long-term strategic goal of undermining Russian power.
Instead, they say, he was simply amplifying earlier statements about the need to hone in on the options facing Putin, while also delaying Russia’s ability to launch another invasion once it regroups.
But many in Europe thought his statement suggested a long war of attrition that could have many fronts.
“Are we headed for a broader war, or is this just Austin’s mistake?” asked François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
“There is growing consensus about supplying Ukraine with howitzers and more complex weapons systems, and now the whole world is doing it,” Heisbourg noted.
“But another thing is to change the goal of the war from Ukraine to Russia. I don’t think there is any consensus on that.” Weakening Russia’s military capability “is a good thing,” Heisbourg said, “but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”
There are other factors that risk amplifying the conflict.
It is expected that in a few weeks, Sweden and Finland seek to join NATO, expanding the alliance in reaction to Putin’s efforts to break it up.
But the process could take months because each NATO country would have to ratify the measure and that could open up a period of vulnerability.
Russia could threaten both countries before they are formally accepted into the alliance and covered by the NATO treaty that stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
But there is less and less doubt that Sweden and Finland will become the 31st and 32nd members of the alliance.
Niblett said that a further expansion of NATO, the very thing Putin has been opposing for the past two decades, “would make explicit the new fronts of the confrontation with Russia.”
Not surprisingly, both sides are playing on the fear that the war could spread, in propaganda campaigns that parallel the ongoing war on the ground.
President Volodymyr Zelenski of Ukraine frequently raises the possibility in his evening radio addresses.
Two weeks ago, imploring NATO allies for more weapons, he argued that “we can either stop Russia or lose all of Eastern Europe.”
Russia has its own playbook, episodically arguing that its goals go beyond the “denazification” of Ukraine and the removal of NATO forces and weapons from allied countries that hosted none before 1997.
Moscow’s frequent references to the growing risk of nuclear war seem intended to drive home the point that the West you shouldn’t push too hard.
That message resonates in Germany, which has long tried to avoid provoking Putin, said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst.
Saying that “Russia must not win,” he said, is different from saying “Russia must lose.”
There is a concern in Berlin that “we shouldn’t push Putin too far into the wall,” Speck said, “so that he gets desperate and does something truly irresponsible.”
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