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Biden shows growing appetite to cross Putin’s red lines


President Biden’s decision last month to help Ukraine obtain F-16 fighter jets marked another crossing of a Russian red line that Vladimir Putin has said would transform the war and draw Washington and Moscow into direct conflict.

Despite the Russian leader’s apocalyptic warnings, the United States has gradually agreed to expand Ukraine’s arsenal with Javelin and Stinger missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers, advanced missile defense systems, drones, helicopters, M1 Abrams tanks and, soon, fourth-generation fighter jets.

A key reason for brushing aside Putin’s threats, U.S. officials say, is a dynamic that has held since the opening days of the war: Russia’s president has not followed through on promises to punish the West for providing weapons to Ukraine. His bluffing has given U.S. and European leaders some confidence they can continue doing so without severe consequences — but to what extent remains one of the conflict’s most dangerous uncertainties.

“Russia has devalued its red lines so many times by saying certain things would be unacceptable and then doing nothing when they happen,” said Maxim Samorukov, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The problem is that we don’t know the actual red line. It’s in one person’s head, and it can change from one day to the next.”

U.S. officials say managing the risk of escalation remains one of the most difficult aspects of the war for Biden and his foreign policy advisers. When deciding what new weapons systems to provide Ukraine, they focus on four key factors, officials said.

“Do they need it? Can they use it? Do we have it? What is the Russian response going to be?” said a senior State Department official. Like others interviewed for this report, this person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.

The official said Russia’s reluctance to retaliate has influenced the risk calculus of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a key Biden confidant who has been an influential voice encouraging the administration and U.S. allies to do more to support Ukraine.

“You factor that in your decision-making. We did this — there was no escalation or response — can we do the next thing? We’re constantly weighing those factors, and it becomes the hardest judgment call we have to make,” said the official.

Like Blinken, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also has viewed the benefits of supplying more lethal weaponry to Ukraine as outweighing the risks of escalation and has worked extensively with European allies on providing F-16s to Ukraine, said a White House official.

The administration has juggled these concerns amid a clamor from Ukrainians and hawks in Congress frustrated by the incremental approach and eager for Biden to move faster in sending more advanced equipment to the battlefield amid Russia’s brutal onslaught.

At the outset of Russia’s invasion in February last year, Putin warned that any country that tried to “impede” his forces “must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to consequences you have never seen in history.”

As the war has dragged on, the warnings from Putin and his subordinates have only become more bombastic, threatening a nuclear holocaust if Russia faced setbacks on the battlefield.

“If Russia feels its territorial integrity is threatened, we will use all defense methods at our disposal, and this is not a bluff,” Putin said last September.

Dmitry Medvedev, who serves as deputy chairman of Putin’s powerful security council, was more explicit in January. “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war,” he said.

While Putin has challenged the United States — suspending participation in a critical arms control treaty, imprisoning Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and overseeing a court’s decision to sentence WNBA star Brittney Griner to a nine-year prison term before insisting on a one-for-one trade for a notorious arms merchant — he has not lashed out militarily at Washington or its allies.

But Western officials are cognizant that that doesn’t mean he never will — particularly as the conflict escalates.

On Tuesday, drones struck affluent districts of Moscow in what one Russian politician called the worst attack on the capital since World War II. Ukraine has denied involvement in such strikes within the Russian mainland, and the Biden administration said it neither enables nor encourages Ukrainian attacks inside Russia. But Kyiv appears content with Russian civilians experiencing the fears that Ukrainians have lived with for more than a year as their population centers have come under relentless Russian missile and drone attacks.

A possible explanation for Putin’s reluctance to hit the West is the diminished state of Russia’s military, according to U.S. officials.

“It would not seem to be in their interest to get into a direct confrontation with NATO right now,” said the senior U.S. official. “They are not well positioned to do so.”

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated in a recent interview with Foreign Affairs that Russia has suffered as many as 250,000 dead and wounded since its full-scale invasion began — staggering losses for any conflict.

Putin has replaced them on the battlefield, Milley said, but with reservists who are “poorly led, not well trained, poorly equipped, not well sustained.”

As Russian fatalities have mounted, Putin has recalibrated his war aims, from seizing control of Kyiv and decapitating the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to controlling and annexing a swath of territory across eastern and southern Ukraine.

Still, U.S. officials remain wary that Russia, home to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, could escalate in Ukraine or elsewhere. Last year, amid heightened concerns that Russia was considering deploying a nuclear weapon, senior State Department officials privately warned Moscow about the consequences of doing so — messages that were eventually followed by public warnings.

As the Biden administration has weighed such risks, Ukrainian leaders, including Zelensky, have expressed their consternation publicly. The perceived dithering and delay, they have claimed, has prolonged the bloodshed by inhibiting Ukraine’s ability to overwhelm the Russian military and force an end to the war.

Republican hawks in Congress, meanwhile, have said the threat of Russian escalation should not even be a consideration. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called the administration “cowardly” for not sending tactical missile systems known as ATACMS. The weapons, with a range up to about 190 miles, have been high on Ukraine’s wish list for almost the entirety of the war.

“Every time the administration has delayed sending Ukraine a critical weapon system, from Stingers to HIMARS to Bradleys, over fears of Russian escalation, they have been proven completely and utterly wrong,” he said earlier this year.

Britain approved the transfer of weapons with a similar range, air-launched cruise missiles known as Storm Shadows, in early May.

Inside the Biden administration, the Pentagon is considered more cautious than the White House or State Department about sending more sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, but officials there deny that fear of escalation plays any role in their calculations.

The Defense Department has focused on what Ukraine needs at any given moment, said a senior Pentagon official who defended its role and counsel as Kyiv’s ambitious requests throughout the war have been slow-rolled or turned down. The official cited how the United States has evolved from providing anti-armor missiles such as the Javelin, when it was clear columns of Russian military vehicles would invade, to sending artillery as the war shifted into a bloody duel waged from trenches — and to more recent Western commitments of tanks and F-16 fighter jets.

Before almost any Western arms or equipment can be transferred to the units that will use them, Ukrainian forces first must learn how to operate and maintain what they receive, this person said, praising “how amazing” they have been at “standing up what is now a very sophisticated maintenance and sustainment system that did not exist at the beginning of the war.”

In one example, Ukrainian officials for months last year requested the billion-dollar Patriot air defense missile system. U.S. officials held back, citing concerns about training, maintenance and cost, but ultimately relented in December after repeated Russian missile barrages targeted Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. One such system donated by the West was damaged after a Russian strike in mid-May, requiring U.S. assistance to repair.

The senior defense official disputed any suggestion that other U.S. agencies are looking to do more to help Ukraine than the Pentagon is. “I think the folks in the Defense Department have a unique understanding of what is practically possible, and how to best support the Ukrainian armed forces in a way that supports them at any given moment on the battlefield,” the official said.

Unquestionably, the Biden administration’s willingness to cross Putin’s red lines has bolstered Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and recapture territory in the east and south. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Putin will continue to allow the West to defy his threats without consequence.

“Certain red lines exist,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, “… but because we don’t have a way to know for sure what they are, that’s what creates risk.”

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