WASHINGTON — For nine weeks, President Biden and his Western allies have stressed the need for the war in Ukraine to continue inside Ukraine.
Now, the fear in Washington and European capitals is that the conflict could soon escalate into a broader war – spilling over into neighboring countries, into cyberspace and into NATO nations suddenly facing Russia’s gas cuts. In the long run, such an expansion could develop into a direct conflict between Washington and Moscow reminiscent of the Cold War, as each seeks to drain the power of the other.
In the past three days, the US defense secretary has called for an effort to undermine the capacity of the Russian military so that it cannot invade another country for years to come. The Russians cut off gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria, which joined NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, quickly denounced the move as a “blackmail tool”. Explosions rocked a disputed region of Moldova, the Russians’ next natural target, and gas depots and even Russia’s missile factory mysteriously caught fire or came under direct attack by Ukrainian forces.
With increasing frequency, the Russians are reminding the world of the size and strength of their nuclear arsenal, an inaccurate warning that if President Vladimir Putin’s conventional forces face more humiliating losses, he has other options. US and European officials say they see no evidence that the Russians are massing their nuclear forces on the battlefield, but behind the scenes officials are already trying to figure out how they would react to a Russian nuclear test, or demonstration explosion, over the Black Sea or in Ukraine. province.
“Nobody wants to see this war escalate any further than it already is,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday when asked about Russia’s nuclear threats. “Surely no one wants to see, or no one should want to see, it escalates into the nuclear domain.”
US and European officials say their concerns are based in part on the growing conviction that the conflict can “continue for some time,” as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said recently.
Talk of a diplomatic solution or even a ceasefire — attempted at various points by the leaders of France, Israel and Turkey, among others — has faded. Ukrainian and Russian forces are digging long distances, focusing on what they expect will be an artillery war in the south and east of the country, as Russia has concentrated its forces after a humiliating withdrawal from Kyiv and other major cities.
“Putin is not willing 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 determination to help Ukraine defeat the Russians grew, in part, after the atrocities at Bucha and other Russian-occupied cities became apparent, that even Germany overcame its initial objections and sent in artillery and armored vehicles.
“The risk of a spillover of war is serious right now,” Seth J. Jones, director of the European Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said on Wednesday.
“Russian losses continue to increase, and the United States is committed to shipping even more powerful weapons that cause those losses,” Mr. Jones said. He added that sooner or later Russian military intelligence may start targeting those arms shipments within NATO borders.
Not all lines of communication between Washington and Moscow collapsed. The US and Russia announced the prisoner exchange early Wednesday. The exchange took place covertly in Turkey, where Trevor Reed, a former Marine, was replaced by a Russian pilot who had long been described by the Justice Department as an “experienced international drug dealer”. But even that has the character of returning to the Cold War, highlighting how much of the current conflict is also a power struggle between Washington and Moscow.
This moment seemed to reinforce the argument that Stephen Kotkin, a professor at Princeton University and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, made in foreign affairs recently when he wrote that the “original end of the Cold War was a mirage,” as Russia’s attempt to integrate into the West was slowly collapsing.
Biden himself has endorsed the theory that Putin has designs that go beyond Ukraine. On the day it began, February 24, he said, the invasion was “always about blatant aggression, and Putin’s desire to build an empire by any means necessary.”
But so far, the war has remained largely within the geographical boundaries of Ukraine. The United States and its allies said their goal was to get Russia to withdraw its forces “irreversibly,” Mr. Blinken said, and to respect Ukraine’s borders as they were before the invasion. Biden refused to impose a no-fly zone that would pit American and Russian pilots against each other. Mr. Putin has denounced the flow of Western weapons to help the Ukrainian military, but he has never attacked those supply lines within NATO territory.
Now, there are signs that restraint is cracking.
When Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, cut off flows to Poland and Bulgaria, it 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 a message that it could inflict pain and, next winter, a stinging cold to Eastern and Western Europe without firing a shot. US officials said it was clearly an attempt to fragment NATO allies, who have so far remained united.
Coincidentally or not, Putin’s move came after Defense Secretary Lloyd J.
“We want to see Russia weaken to the point where it can’t do the things it did in invading Ukraine,” Austin said, a line that seemed to suggest the United States has wanted to erode Russian military power for years — presumably with Mr. Putin in power. The export controls that 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 questioned whether Washington’s war aims expanded from helping Ukraine defend itself, which has broad support, to harming Russia itself, a controversial goal that would feed the Russian narrative that Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are self-defense. against NATO.
Some administration officials insist that Mr. Austin’s comments have been over-interpreted, and that he was not suggesting a long-term strategic goal of undermining Russian power. Instead, they say, he was amplifying past statements about the need to fine-tune the options facing Mr. Putin — while hampering Russia’s ability to launch another invasion once it regroups.
But many in Europe thought his statement referred to a long war of attrition that could have many fronts.
“Are we heading for a wider war or is this just Austin’s slip?” asked François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
Heisbourg noted that “there is a widening consensus on the supply of Ukrainian howitzers and more complex weapons systems, and everyone is doing it now.”
But shifting the war objective from Ukraine to Russia is another thing. I don’t think there is any consensus on that.” Heisburg said that weakening Russia’s military capability “is a good thing, but it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.”
There are other factors that threaten to expand the conflict. Within weeks, Sweden and Finland are expected to seek membership in NATO — an expansion of the alliance in response to Mr. Putin’s efforts to dismantle it. But the process could take months because each NATO country would have to ratify the move, and that could open a period of vulnerability. Russia can threaten both countries before they are formally accepted into the alliance and are covered by the NATO treaty which states 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. Mr. Niblett said that the new expansion of NATO – which Mr. Putin has been objecting to for the past two decades – would “illustrate the new front lines of the confrontation with Russia”.
It is not surprising that the two sides play on the fear of the spread of war 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, NATO allies pleaded for more weapons, saying: “We can either stop Russia or lose the whole of Eastern Europe.”
Russia has its own pamphlet, in which it casually argues that its goals go beyond “de-Nazification” of Ukraine to removing NATO forces and weapons from allied nations that did not host either of them prior to 1997. Moscow’s repeated references to the growing danger of nuclear war seem intended to push for Home to the point where the West should not push it too far.
German analyst Ulrich Speck said that message resonates in Germany, which has long sought to avoid provoking Mr. Putin. He said that saying “Russia should not win” was different from saying “Russia should lose”.
Mr Speck said there was concern in Berlin that “we shouldn’t push Putin so hard against the wall”, “until he becomes desperate and does something really irresponsible”.