Putin shows he can antagonize the United States away from Ukraine

His ominous warnings, at the end of a two-day trip to North Korea and Vietnam, placed Russia and the West in a new phase of escalation over Ukraine. They come against a backdrop of distraction and political uncertainty among Kiev's core supporters, with potentially game-changing elections on the horizon in the United States and France.

In addition to using nuclear weapons or causing further destruction on the battlefield in Ukraine, the Russian leader is trying to demonstrate that he can pressure and antagonize the West in other ways and in other places.

“I fear that we are in a bad spiral, that politicians have the illusion of control,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “The truly dangerous part of what is happening is that Russia is ready to act as a spoiler and is determined to demand a price from the West for supporting Ukraine militarily – and is ready to carry out several irreversible acts, such as sharing sophisticated technologies military with North Korea.”

With Western officials more accustomed to Putin's threats than in the early days of the war, the Russian leader changed the content and raised the volume, asking rhetorically at one point Thursday why Moscow shouldn't “go through with it” — an apparent reference to nuclear war – if the West is indeed seeking its “strategic defeat”.

From the beginning, Putin has used the threat of nuclear war as a way to dissuade Western nations from supporting Ukraine. When he launched his full-scale invasion in early 2022, he warned any countries intending to intervene that they would face consequences “the likes of which have never been seen in all of history.”

Initially the threat worked. President Biden's administration has made avoiding nuclear war the lodestar of his Ukraine policy. The United States and its allies have withheld a full complement of sophisticated weapons from Kiev out of fear that Putin might carry out a nuclear attack or retaliate directly against a NATO member state.

Critics of such restraint argue that it robbed Ukraine of its best chance of victory during the first year of the invasion, when Russia was failing badly on the battlefield and Ukraine still had an abundance of trained personnel.

But supporters argue that the approach allowed the West to arm Ukraine with weapons that would have triggered a stronger reaction from the Kremlin if they had been supplied all at once. Ukraine's allies have gradually increased the sophistication and scope of their weapons deliveries, first with HIMARS missile launchers, then with tanks and F-16 fighter jets, in a strategy that some Western officials have likened to the gradual boiling of a frog.

The latest change – allowing Ukraine to conduct limited attacks in Russia to defend against cross-border attacks – appears to have turned Putin's heat. Since that shift, he has frequently mentioned his nuclear arsenal and suggested other ways Russia could step up its action in response to the West.

Skeptics of Putin's rhetoric say they see no reason why he should use a nuclear weapon. A senior NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private assessments, said the alliance judges it “unlikely” that Putin will use nuclear weapons in the conflict and has seen no change in Russia's nuclear posture to suggest otherwise.

But Putin has shown Pyongyang that he can take measures without launching a nuclear weapon and away from Ukraine, and still unnerve the United States and its allies.

The Russian leader's willingness to brandish the possibility of arming Pyongyang, which would have been unthinkable previously during Putin's tenure as president, shows how the war in Ukraine has become a singular and defining principle of his foreign policy and government.

“Russian foreign policy is now structured around war,” Gabuev said. “In every relationship there are three objectives: first, support for the Russian military machine; second, support for the sanctioned Russian economy; and three: How can I exploit this relationship to inflict pain on the United States and its allies for their support of Ukraine?”

The discomfort may go beyond arming Mr. Kim. A comment made by Putin earlier this month in St. Petersburg led some analysts to suggest he was considering supplying weapons to the Houthis, the Iran-backed Shiite militants in Yemen, who have attacked U.S. ships and planes in and around the Red Sea. Sea, or other groups hostile to the United States and its allies.

Doubters of Putin's nuclear saber rattle the reason Russia is on the front lines in Ukraine, making it unlikely to do anything dramatic that would further mobilize Kiev's supporters or jeopardize its trajectory on the battlefield. Former President Donald J. Trump, who has made clear his distaste for U.S. spending in Ukraine, could return to the White House in seven months.

“If Russia is fundamentally confident that the future will be better than the past, then that makes the use of nuclear weapons very unlikely,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former ambassador to the Kingdom United in Belarus.

However, some analysts fear that Western desensitization to Putin's warnings has created a precarious situation.

In Moscow, a foreign policy expert who has advised the Kremlin acknowledged that Russia has sometimes cried wolf, “but the wolf never appeared.”

There is a growing feeling in Moscow, he explained, that Russian threats to the West have not been convincing enough and that it is necessary to raise the temperature a little.

In addition to arming American adversaries, including North Korea and Iran, experts in Moscow are discussing the possibility of cyber or space attacks, the person said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking to an American media outlet.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the risk now increases of inadvertent escalation, in which one party takes an action based on a misperception of what the other is doing. Officials in the United States, for example, have recently expressed concern that the Kremlin is misinterpreting Ukrainian attacks on Russian sites that are part of Moscow's nuclear warning system.

“I think we continue to focus on nuclear escalation, and that distracts us from fully understanding all the ways in which it is moving out of that domain,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said.

Illicit arms transfers or escalating sabotage attacks outside Ukraine would represent a logical escalation for Putin, analysts say, given Russia's unique Soviet heritage: global reach, weapons-producing prowess and warfare-savvy intelligence services unconventional.

“People criticize Russia and say it is a declining power,” said Bobo Lo, a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, and a former Australian diplomat in Moscow. “But she is still a formidable disruptive power. This is her comparative advantage. Not only does he have the ability to shock, he has the will to do so.”

Anton Troianovski AND Lara Jakes contributed to the reporting.

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