WASHINGTON — For nine weeks, President Biden and Western allies have stressed the need to keep the war for Ukraine inside Ukraine.
Now the fear in Washington and European capitals is that the conflict could soon escalate into a wider war – spreading to neighboring states, cyberspace and NATO countries suddenly facing a Russian gas cut. In the long run, such an expansion could turn into a more direct conflict between Washington and Moscow reminiscent of the Cold War, each seeking to undermine the power of the other.
Over the past three days, the US Secretary of Defense has called for an effort to degrade the capability of the Russian military so it cannot invade another country for years. The Russians halted gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria, which joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union; Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, immediately denounced this decision as an “instrument of blackmail”. Explosions rocked a disputed area of Moldova, a natural next target for the Russians, and gas depots and even a missile factory in Russia mysteriously caught fire or were attacked directly 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 President Vladimir V. Putin’s conventional forces suffer more humiliating losses, he has other options. US 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 playing on how they might react to a Russian nuclear test, or a demonstration explosion, over the Black Sea or over the Ukraine. territory.
“No one wants to see this war escalate more than it has already,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday when asked about Russia’s nuclear threats. “Certainly no one wants to see, or no one should want to see, this escalates into the nuclear realm.”
US and European officials say their fears are based in part on a growing belief that the conflict could “last for a while,” as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken recently said.
Discussions of a diplomatic resolution or even a ceasefire – attempted at various times by French, Israeli and Turkish leaders, among others – have died down. Ukrainian and Russian forces are digging in for the long haul, focusing on what they anticipate will be an artillery war in the south and east of the country, where Russia has concentrated its forces after a humiliating retreat from kyiv and other key cities.
“Putin is not ready to back down, nor are the Ukrainians, so there is more blood to come,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a British think tank. At the same time, American and European resolve to help Ukraine defeat the Russians hardened, in part after the atrocities of Bucha and other Russian-occupied cities became clear, even Germany overcoming his initial objections and sending in 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 an expanding war is serious right now.”
“Russian casualties continue to mount and the United States is committed to shipping more powerful weapons that cause those casualties,” Jones said. Sooner or later, he added, Russian military intelligence might start targeting these arms shipments within NATO borders.
Not all lines of communication between Washington and Moscow have collapsed. The United States and Russia announced a prisoner exchange on Wednesday. The exchange took place secretly in Turkey, where Trevor Reed, a former Marine, was exchanged for a Russian pilot whom the Justice Department had long called an “experienced international drug trafficker”. But even that sounded like a throwback to the Cold War, underscoring how the current conflict is also a power struggle between Washington and Moscow.
The moment seemed to bolster the argument Stephen Kotkin, a professor at Princeton University and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, recently made in Foreign Affairs when he wrote that “the end of the Cold War was a mirage”, as the effort to integrate Russia into the West slowly crumbled.
Mr. Biden himself endorsed the theory that Mr. Putin has designs that go beyond Ukraine. The invasion, he said on the day it began, Feb. 24, was “still naked aggression, Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary.”
But so far the war has remained largely within the geographical confines of Ukraine. The United States and its allies have said their goal is to get Russia to withdraw its forces “irreversibly”, as Mr Blinken put it, and to respect Ukraine’s borders as they stand. existed before the invasion. Mr Biden has refused to impose a no-fly zone that would pit American and Russian pilots against each other. Mr Putin denounced the influx of Western weapons to help the Ukrainian army, but never attacked these supply lines inside NATO territory.
Now there are signs that the restraint is breaking.
When Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, cut off flow to Poland and Bulgaria, it was a clear warning sign that Germany – hugely dependent 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 fragment NATO allies, who have so far remained united.
Coincidentally or not, Mr. Putin’s decision came just after Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III went beyond the administration’s oft-repeated statement that it wanted to ensure that Russia would emerge from its strategically weakened Ukrainian experience.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the point that it can’t do the kinds of things it did by invading Ukraine,” Mr Austin said, a line that seemed to suggest the US wanted to erode Russian military power for years. – presumably as long as Mr Putin remains in power. The export controls the United States has imposed on key microelectronic components that Russia needs to produce its missiles and tanks appear designed to do just that.
Some Europeans have questioned whether Washington’s war goals have expanded from helping defend Ukraine, which enjoys broad support, to harming Russia itself, a controversial goal that would fuel a Russian narrative that Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are intended to defend against NATO.
Some administration officials insist Mr. Austin’s comments were overinterpreted and did not suggest a long-term strategic goal of undermining Russian power. Instead, they say, he was only amplifying past statements about the need to refine the choices Mr Putin faced – while delaying Russia’s ability to launch another invasion once she would have regrouped.
But many in Europe believed his statement suggested a long war of attrition that could have many fronts.
“Are we heading for a larger war or is this just an Austin gaffe?” asked Francois Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
“There is a growing consensus on supplying Ukrainian howitzers and more complex weapon systems, and everyone is doing it now,” Heisbourg noted.
“But it is another thing to pivot the war objective from Ukraine to Russia. I don’t think there’s a consensus on that. Weakening Russia’s military capability “is a good thing to do”, Mr Heisbourg said, “but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself”.
Other factors may widen the conflict. In a few weeks, Sweden and Finland are expected to seek NATO entry, expanding the alliance in response to Putin’s efforts to break it up. But the process could take months as every NATO country would have to ratify the decision, which could open a period of vulnerability. Russia could threaten the two countries before they are officially accepted into the alliance and covered by the NATO treaty which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
But it is increasingly clear that Sweden and Finland will become the 31st and 32nd members of the alliance. Mr Niblett said further NATO enlargement – exactly what Mr Putin has opposed for two decades – would “make explicit the new front lines of the standoff with Russia”.
Unsurprisingly, both sides are playing on the fear that the war could spread, in propaganda campaigns parallel to the ongoing war on the ground. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky frequently raises this possibility in his evening radio speeches; two weeks ago, pleading with NATO allies for more weapons, he claimed that “we can either stop Russia or lose all of Eastern Europe”.
Russia has its own playbook, occasionally arguing that its goals go beyond the “denazification” of Ukraine to the withdrawal of NATO forces and weapons from allied countries that hosted none before 1997. Moscow’s frequent talks about the growing risk of nuclear war seem intended to insist that the West should not push too far.
That message resonates in Germany, which has long sought to avoid provoking Mr 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 much against the wall”, Mr Speck said, “so that he can get desperate and do something really irresponsible”.