C.I.A. Director Says Putin Might Consider Nuclear Weapons

WASHINGTON — The CIA director said Thursday that “potential despair” over the appearance of victory in Ukraine could tempt Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin to order the use of a low-yield or tactical nuclear weapon, arguing publicly for the first time a concern that has traveled the White House during seven weeks of conflict.

The director, William J. Burns, who served as the US ambassador to Russia and is the administration member who has dealt most often with Putin, said the possible detonation of such a weapon, even as a warning shot, it was a possibility. that the United States remained “very concerned.” But he was quick to warn that so far, despite Putin’s frequent invocation of nuclear threats, he had seen “no practical evidence” of the kind of military deployments or arms movements that would suggest such a move was imminent.

“Given the potential despair of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks they have faced thus far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential recourse to tactical nuclear weapons or low-cost nuclear weapons. performance. Mr. 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 Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who helped create the program that took nuclear weapons out of Ukraine and other former Soviet states 30 years ago.

Tactical weapons are sometimes called “battlefield nukes,” smaller weapons that can be fired from a mortar or even explode like a mine, as opposed to “strategic” weapons that are fitted to ICBMs. Russia has a large arsenal of tactical weapons; The United States maintains comparatively few. Low-yield nuclear weapons are designed to produce a fairly small explosion, sometimes blurring the difference between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Burns also argued that the disclosure of Putin’s intentions by US intelligence officials inflicted forces on Chechnya in the 1990s.

“I have watched over the years as Putin has cooked himself up in a combustible combination of grievance, ambition and insecurity,” Burns said. 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 breakup of the Soviet Union.

President Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, acknowledged Thursday that the White House was discussing sending a high-level official to kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in a show of support for the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently made a secret trip to kyiv by train.

Mr. Sullivan said the White House had briefly considered Biden going to Ukraine, but as soon as it became clear “what kind of footprint he would require, what kind of assets he would take from both the Ukrainians and the US to keep him safe, the idea was rejected.

When pressed about reports that he, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, or Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III might go to kyiv, Mr. Sullivan declined to discuss it, saying “when that happens, we want to make sure it’s done in a very safe way.” Biden told reporters that no decision had been made to send an envoy.

Mr. Sullivan also said that in the coming days the United States would announce a crackdown on countries and companies that violate Western sanctions on Moscow, which have been imposed since the invasion began in late February.

The Commerce Department on Thursday identified 10 planes that were flown or operated by Belarus, with the apparent intention of registering them in Russia. The sanctions would prevent the aircraft from being serviced or refueled internationally, effectively grounding them.

Sullivan had made a similar promise to crack down on violators just before Biden’s trip to Brussels and Warsaw last month. But on Thursday, speaking at the Economic Club of Washington, he said he believed some of the sanctions, particularly defense technology export controls, were beginning to affect Russia’s military readiness.

“Russia’s ability to re-equip and resupply,” he said, was being delayed because many of its systems “rely on Western microchips and components.”

“They are running out of stocks of some of the high-end weapons,” Sullivan added, although he acknowledged that Russia’s continued purchase of natural gas was helping finance the war.

“I’m not sitting here suggesting that we’ve deprived them so much of those resources that they literally can’t field an army and still try to make progress on the battlefield,” Mr. Sullivan said. But he said Washington was stepping up efforts to help Europe wean itself off Russian gas by delivering supplies of liquefied natural gas from the United States.

But Sullivan also indicated that so far he had seen no evidence of China stepping in to help Putin with military or financial aid. His statement was notable because Mr. Biden, in a call with China’s President Xi Jinping four weeks ago, had warned of US sanctions should China aid the war effort. But evidence since then has suggested that, despite Putin and Xi’s statement in February that their relationship is “boundless,” China in fact appears to have mixed views on how much to support the war.

Both Burns and Sullivan acknowledged that the war was entering a new phase now that Russia appears to have narrowed its goal to taking the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting since 2014.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe who is now retired, said Thursday that while Putin may paint his more limited operation as a victory, the war will be a loss for Russia in the long run.

“Ukraine will still try to fight what I call the American Revolutionary War again, skirmishes, counterattacks and ambushes,” General Breedlove said. “It’s just going to be a lot harder for them.”

By moving his forces east, Putin is seeking to move the war into more favorable territory, trying to make it harder for Ukrainian forces to stick to those tactics. “Now they are prepared to fight the war they really want,” General Breedlove said. “They want to go toe-to-toe in the open field.”

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