WASHINGTON — The CIA director said on Thursday that “potential desperation” at the appearance of a victory in Ukraine could tempt Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin to order the use of a tactical or low-efficiency nuclear weapon, discuss it publicly for the first time a concern has passed through the White House during seven weeks of conflict.
Its director, William J. Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and is the government member most frequently involved with Putin, said the possible detonation of such a weapon — even as a warning shot — was a possibility. which the United States remained “very concerned”. But he was quick to warn that, despite Mr Putin’s frequent citations of nuclear threats, he had seen no “practical evidence” of the types of military deployment or weapons movements that would indicate such a move was imminent.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks they have faced militarily to date, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a possible resort to tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons, Burns said during a question-and-answer session after a speech he gave at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
He spoke in response to a question from former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, who helped establish the program that brought nuclear weapons from Ukraine and other former Soviet states 30 years ago.
Tactical weapons are sometimes referred to as “battlefield nukes”, smaller weapons that can be fired from a mortar or even detonated like a mine, as opposed to “strategic” weapons placed on intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia has a large arsenal of tactical weapons; the United States keeps relatively few. Low-efficiency nuclear weapons are designed to produce a fairly small explosion, which sometimes blurs the difference between conventional and nuclear weapons.
Mr Burns also argued that the disclosure of Mr Putin’s intentions by US intelligence before the outbreak of the war had made it more difficult for Mr Putin to conceal the “crude brutality” used by his troops in Ukraine, which is reminiscent of the damage caused by Russia. troops attacked in Chechnya in the 1990s.
“I’ve seen over the years how Putin has simmered a combustible combination of grievances and ambition and insecurity,” said Mr Burns. He said the Russian president has harbored grievances against the West for decades, convinced that the United States took advantage of Russia’s weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
President Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, both acknowledged Thursday that the White House was debating sending a senior official to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, as a sign of support for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently made a secret trip to Kiev by train.
Sullivan said the White House briefly considered letting Biden go to Ukraine, but once it became clear “what kind of footprint that would require, what kind of assets that would take from both the Ukrainians and the US to keep him safe.” the idea was rejected.
When pushed for reports that he, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken or Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III might be going to Kiev, Mr Sullivan declined to discuss it, saying: “If and when that happens, we want to make sure that done it in a very safe way.” Mr Biden told reporters that no decision had been made to send an envoy.
Mr Sullivan also said the United States will announce a crackdown in the coming days against countries and companies violating Western sanctions against Moscow imposed since the invasion began in late February.
The Ministry of Commerce on Thursday identified 10 aircraft flying to or being operated by Belarus, with the clear intention of registering them in Russia. The sanctions would prevent the planes from being serviced or fueled internationally, effectively grounding them.
Mr Sullivan had made a similar vow to deal with the violators just before Mr Biden’s trip to Brussels and Warsaw last month. But Thursday, during a speech to Washington’s Economic Club, he said he believed some sanctions — especially export controls on defense technology — were beginning to hurt Russia’s military preparedness.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
A blow to the Russian troops. The flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet suffered catastrophic damage that forced the crew to abandon it. Russia said a fire caused the damage, although Ukraine claimed to have hit the ship with missiles. The ship then sank while being towed to port.
“Russia’s ability to re-equip and replenish,” he said, has been delayed because many of its systems “rely on Western microchips and components.”
“They are depleting stocks of some of the high-value weapons,” Sullivan added, though acknowledging that Russia’s continued purchase of natural gas helped fund the war.
“I’m not sitting here suggesting that we’ve starved them so much of those resources that they literally can’t set up an army and keep trying to make headway on the battlefield,” said Mr. Sullivan. But he said Washington was stepping up efforts to help Europe rid itself of Russian gas by providing supplies of liquefied natural gas from the United States.
But Sullivan also said he had seen no evidence so far that China intervened to help Putin with military or financial aid. His statement was notable because in a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China four weeks ago, Biden warned of US sanctions if China aided the war effort. But the evidence since then has suggested that despite Mr Putin’s and Mr Xi’s statement in February that their relationship has “no boundaries”, China in fact appears to have a mixed view of how much aid should be given to the war.
Mr Burns and Mr Sullivan both acknowledged that the war was entering a new phase as Russia appears to have narrowed its aim to taking the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting since 2014.
Gene. Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, now retired, said on Thursday that while Mr Putin may portray his smaller operation as a victory, in the long run the war will be a loss to Russia.
“Ukraine is still going to try and fight what I call the American Revolutionary War, skirmishes and counter-attacks and ambushes,” General Breedlove said. “It just gets a lot harder for them.”
By moving his troops east, Mr. Putin is trying to move the war to more favorable territory, in an effort to make it more difficult for Ukrainian forces to stick to those tactics. “They are now ready to fight the war they really want,” General Breedlove said. “They want to meet force upon force in open fields.”