Washington's Newest Worry

Washington’s Newest Worry: The Dangers of Cornering Putin


Senior White House officials designing the strategy to confront Russia have begun quietly debating a new concern: that the avalanche of sanctions directed at Moscow, which has gained speed faster than they imagined, is cornering President Vladimir Putin and may prompt him to lash out, perhaps expanding the conflict beyond Ukraine.

In Situation Room meetings in recent days, the issue has come up repeatedly, according to three officials. Putin’s tendency, U.S. intelligence officials have told the White House and Congress, is to double down when he feels trapped by his own overreach. So they have described a series of possible reactions, ranging from indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities to compensate for the early mistakes made by his invading force, to cyberattacks directed at the U.S. financial system, to more nuclear threats and perhaps moves to take the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.

The debate over Putin’s next moves is linked to an urgent reexamination by intelligence agencies of the Russian leader’s mental state, and whether his ambitions and appetite for risk have been altered by two years of COVID-19 isolation.

Those concerns accelerated after Putin’s order Sunday to place the country’s strategic nuclear weapons on a “combat ready” alert to respond to the West’s “aggressive comments.” (In the ensuing days, however, national security officials say they have seen little evidence on the ground that Russia’s nuclear forces have actually moved to a different state of readiness.)

It was a sign of the depth of U.S. concern that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Wednesday that he was canceling a previously scheduled Minuteman nuclear missile test to avoid escalating direct challenges to Moscow or giving Putin an excuse to once again invoke the power of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

“We did not take this decision lightly, but instead, to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday. “We recognize at this moment of tension how critical it is that both the United States and Russia bear in mind the risk of miscalculation, and take steps to reduce those risks.”

Nonetheless, Putin’s reaction to the initial wave of sanctions has provoked a range of concerns that one senior official called the “Cornered Putin Problem.” Those concerns center on a series of recent announcements: the pullout of oil companies like Exxon and Shell from developing Russia’s oil fields, the moves against Russia’s central bank that sent the ruble plunging, and Germany’s surprise announcement that it would drop its ban on sending lethal weapons to Ukrainian forces and ramp up its defense spending.

But beyond canceling the missile test, there is no evidence that the United States is considering steps to reduce tensions, and a senior official said there was no interest in backing off sanctions.

“Quite the contrary,’’ said the official, who, like other U.S. officials interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to discuss the internal debates among Biden’s advisers.

In fact, President Joe Biden announced expanded sanctions Thursday, aimed at Russia’s oligarch class. Many of those named — including Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson and one of his close advisers — rank among his most influential defenders and the beneficiaries of the system he has created.

Biden, reading a statement and taking no questions, said the sanctions have had “a profound impact already.”

A few hours after he spoke, S&P dropped Russia’s credit rating to CCC-, the credit rating agency said in a statement. That is far below the junk bond levels Russia was ranked at a few days after the invasion and just two notches above a warning that the country was going into default.

It suggested that Putin’s effort to “sanctions-proof” his economy had largely failed. And at least for now, there is no discernible off-ramp for the Russian leader short of declaring a cease-fire or pulling back his forces — steps he has so far shown no interest in taking.

At a news briefing at the White House on Thursday afternoon, press secretary Jen Psaki said that she knew of no efforts to show Putin a way out. “I think right in this moment, they are marching toward Kyiv with a convoy and continuing to take reportedly barbaric steps against the people of Ukraine. So now is not the moment where we are offering options for reducing sanctions.”

Yet a senior State Department official, asked about the debates inside the administration on the risks ahead, said there were nuances in the administration’s approach that point to possible outs for the Russian leader.

Biden’s policy, the official said, was not one of seeking regime change in Russia. The idea, he said, was to influence Putin’s actions, not his grip on power. And the sanctions, the official noted, were designed not as a punishment, but as leverage to end the war. They will escalate if Putin escalates, the official said. But the administration would calibrate its sanctions, and perhaps reduce them, if Putin begins to de-escalate.

And the official said that because Putin has now exerted such control over Russian media, closing down the last vestiges of independent news organizations, he could spin some kind of de-escalation into a victory.

Yet that hope collides with the assessments of Putin’s instincts, many of which are based on open, unclassified observations.

CIA Director William Burns was an early advocate of the view that the Russian leader planned to invade and was not massing troops around Ukraine simply to gain leverage in some kind of bargaining game.

“I would never underestimate President Putin’s risk appetite on Ukraine,” Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, who has dealt with Putin for more than two decades, said in December.

Putin’s views on Ukraine are fiercely held. He seems unlikely to accept any result that does not achieve his goal of bringing Ukraine closer to the Russian fold. And, especially after the Russian military’s poor performance in the first week of the war, he may be concerned that any whiff of failure could weaken his hold on power.

Putin’s strategy in coming weeks, some other U.S. officials have warned in closed meetings since the crisis accelerated, could be to redirect the conflict toward Washington, hoping to distract from the Russian forces’ attacks on civilians in Ukraine and rouse a nationalistic response to the actions of a longtime adversary.

If Putin wants to strike at the U.S. financial system, as Biden has struck at his, he has only one significant pathway in: his well-trained army of hackers and an adjacent group of criminal ransomware operators, some of whom have publicly pledged to help him in his battle.

Tatyana Bolton, the policy director for cybersecurity and emerging threats at the R Street Institute, expressed confidence Thursday that the financial industry was ready.

“The JPMorgans of the world spend more on cybersecurity than many government agencies,’’ said Bolton, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security whose family emigrated from Russia.

But she was concerned about the possibility that Putin would finally activate “pre-positioned malware in the energy sector as a means of getting back at the United States.”

Members of Congress have also raised concerns that Putin could unleash Moscow’s network of criminal hackers, who have conducted ransomware attacks that have shut down hospitals, meat processing plants and the Colonial Pipeline network that carried nearly half of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel on the East Coast.

“If the situation escalates further, I think we are going to see Russian cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was co-chair of an influential cyberspace commission.

Another possibility is that Putin will threaten to push farther into Moldova or Georgia, which, like Ukraine, are not members of NATO — and thus territory that the U.S. and NATO forces would not enter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making Moldova one of his stops on a reassurance tour that began Thursday.

There are larger worries, involving potential nuclear threats. On Sunday, as the fighting accelerated, Belarus passed a referendum that amended its constitution to allow for nuclear weapons to be based, once again, on its territory. U.S. officials are expecting that President Alexander Lukashenko may well ask Putin to place tactical weapons in his country, where they would be closer to European capitals. And Putin has shown, twice this week, that he is ready to remind the world of the powers of his arsenal.

But the next move for Putin is likely to further intensify his operations in Ukraine, which would almost certainly result in more civilian casualties and destruction.

“It wasn’t a cakewalk for Putin, and now he has no choice but to double down,” said Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official. “This is what autocrats do. You cannot walk away or you look weak.”

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