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Putin options in fray with U.S. worry some

Arsenal holds nuke, cyber weapons by The New York Times | January 16, 2022 at 3:51 a.m.

VIENNA -- Officials didn't expect much progress from last week's attempt to defuse the security crisis that Russia has ignited in Eastern Europe by surrounding Ukraine on three sides with 100,000 troops.

But as the Biden administration and NATO conduct simulations about how the next few months could unfold, they are increasingly wary of another set of options for President Vladimir Putin, steps that are more far-reaching than simply rolling troops over Ukraine's border.

Putin wants to extend Russia's sphere of influence to Eastern Europe and secure written commitments that NATO will never again enlarge. If he were frustrated in reaching that goal, some of his aides suggested on the sidelines of the negotiations last week, then he would pursue Russia's security interests with results that would be felt acutely in Europe and the United States.

Putin has hinted that nuclear weapons could be shifted to places -- perhaps not far from the U.S. coastline -- that would reduce warning times after a launch to as little as five minutes, raising the risk of a confrontation with echoes of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

"A hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine would not undermine the security of the United States," said Dmitry Suslov, an analyst in Moscow who gave a closed presentation on the standoff to Russian lawmakers last month. "The overall logic of Russian actions is that it is the U.S. and NATO that must pay a high price."

And as Ukrainians were reminded anew Friday as the websites of the country's ministries were defaced, Russia's army of hackers can wreak havoc in Ukraine and also in power grids from Munich to Michigan.

The Russian leader has warned repeatedly in the past year that if the West crossed a "red line" that threatens Russia's security, then he would order an unexpected response.

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"Russia's response will be asymmetrical, fast and tough," Putin said in April, referring to the kinds of unconventional military action that Russia could take if adversaries threatened "our fundamental security interests."

The current crisis was touched off by the Kremlin's release of a series of demands that, if the U.S. and its allies agreed, would effectively restore Russia's sphere of influence close to Soviet-era lines, before NATO expanded into Eastern Europe.

It has also demanded that all U.S. nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Europe, saying it felt threatened by their presence -- though the types and locations of those weapons have not changed in years. Russia also wants a stop to all Western troop rotations through former Warsaw Pact states that have since joined NATO.

It has reinforced those demands, which the U.S. calls "nonstarters," with a troop buildup near Ukraine and repeated warnings that it was prepared to use unspecified "military-technical means" to defend what it considers its legitimate security interests.

In response, the Biden administration has issued warnings of financial and technological sanctions if the Kremlin should follow through with its threats, particularly in regard to Ukraine. American officials say that for all the talk about moving nuclear weapons or using asymmetrical attacks, the U.S. has seen little evidence.

At a White House briefing Thursday, Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, declined to answer a question about what kind of Russian action would trigger a U.S. response.

"The United States and our allies are prepared for any contingency, any eventuality," he said. "We're prepared to keep moving forward down the diplomatic path in good faith, and we're prepared to respond to fresh acts. And beyond that, all we can do is get ready. And we are ready."

The most clear of the potential scenarios is a Russian invasion of Ukraine -- maybe not to take over the entire country but to send troops into the breakaway regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. At the Pentagon, "five or six different options" for the extent of a Russian invasion are being examined, one senior official reported.

Researchers tracking social media footage have spotted numerous signs of additional Russian military equipment being shipped westward by train from Siberia. In Russia, state television has been filled with warnings that Ukraine could soon attack Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine -- fitting with the U.S. allegation Friday that Russian operatives, with specialties in explosives and urban warfare, have infiltrated Ukraine and might be planning to stage a provocation to justify an invasion. Russia denied the allegation.

In Geneva, Russian diplomats insisted that there were no plans to invade Ukraine. But there were hints of other steps. A senior Russian diplomat said Moscow was prepared to place unspecified weapons systems in unspecified places. That merged with U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia could be considering new nuclear deployments, perhaps tactical nuclear weapons or an emerging arsenal of hypersonic missiles.

In November, Putin suggested that Russia could deploy submarine-based hypersonic missiles within close striking distance of Washington. He has said repeatedly that the prospect of Western military expansion in Ukraine poses an unacceptable risk because it could be used to launch a nuclear strike against Moscow with just a few minutes' warning. Russia, he made clear, could do the same.

"From the beginning of the year, we will have in our arsenal a new sea-based missile, a hypersonic one," Putin said, referring to a weapon that travels at more than five times the speed of sound and could likely evade existing missile defenses.

In an apparent reference to the U.S. capital, he added, "The flight time to reach those who give the orders will also be five minutes."

Putin said he would deploy such missiles only in response to Western moves, and Biden told Putin in a recent conversation that the United States has no plans to place offensive strike systems in Ukraine.

Russian officials hinted again in recent days about new missile deployments, and American officials repeated that they have seen no moves in that direction. But any effort to place weapons close to U.S. cities would create conditions similar to the 1962 crisis that was the closest the world ever came to a nuclear exchange.

American officials, however, believe that Putin could be drawn to cyberattacks if the conflict escalates further. Such attacks are easy to deny, tailored for disruption and amenable to being ramped up or down, depending on the political temperature.

Putin does not need to do much to insert computer code, or malware, into U.S. infrastructure. The Department of Homeland Security has long warned that the Russians have already placed malware inside many U.S. power grids.

The Biden administration has sought to shore up U.S. systems and root out malware. The nation's biggest utilities run a war game every two years, simulating such an attack. But much of corporate America remains far less protected.

The fear is that if sanctions were imposed on Moscow, then Putin's response could be to accelerate the kind of Russia-based ransomware attacks that hit a pipeline, a major beef producer, and cities and towns across the country last year.

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