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With Russian nuclear forces on alert, Ukraine crisis enters more dangerous phase

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Feb. 27 that he had put his nuclear deterrence forces into alert, blaming the West’s “aggressive statements.” (Video: Reuters)
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President Vladimir Putin’s decision to put Russian nuclear forces on alert thrust the crisis over Ukraine into a more volatile phase on Sunday, fueling the potential for deadly miscalculation as the West’s campaign of economic reprisal increases the chances the Russian leader could see his survival and that of the Russian state at risk.

U.S. officials were scrambling in the hours following Putin’s order, issued as Russian troops face stiff resistance in the fourth day of their invasion of Ukraine, to decode what the enigmatic leader’s decision meant in practice. Experts said it was the first time the Kremlin, which has the world’s biggest nuclear stockpile, had made such an announcement since the Russian Federation was established in 1991.

Putin described the move as a response to what he called “aggressive statements” from the West and its escalating package of economic retaliation. The sanctions, including new steps unveiled Saturday that would cut off Russia’s financial institutions from the global economy and cripple its central bank, have already sent the ruble tumbling to a record low, raising questions about how Russia’s economy can hold on.

Biden administration officials condemned Putin’s order as a warning over Ukraine, where Putin has depicted his invasion as a security imperative rather than a signal of his intent to employ a nuclear device. They noted that Russia, just last month, was one of the nations signed on to a declaration saying that atomic war could not be won and should never be fought.

“This is just an attempt, an escalatory attempt, to justify further action on their part,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told MSNBC. “We have the ability, of course, to defend ourselves, as does NATO. But I think we all need to be very clear-eyed and call this out for what it is.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the decision illustrated Putin’s desire to browbeat his opponents into submission. “Certainly, nothing is off the table with this guy,” she said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” ​ “He’s willing to use whatever tools he can to intimidate Ukrainians and the world.”

Russia aims to ward off NATO in the event of a Ukraine invasion

But Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at the Rand Corp., said the United States and its allies would have to tread carefully as they seek to increase the pain on Russia’s economy without triggering a violent response from Putin or a round of unpredictable tit-for-tat escalation.

“Credibly communicating the limits of our intentions — even though the sanctions themselves are totally justified — is really difficult,” he said. “It is plausible for them to interpret our sanctions as an attempt to fundamentally damage the Russia state and overthrow its government.”

Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia’s nuclear forces at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said Sunday’s announcement would enable Russia’s military command and control system to transmit a nuclear launch order and would make it less vulnerable to decapitation in the event that either Putin or his top military advisers were dead or incapacitated.

Russia has nearly 6,000 warheads, slightly more than the United States’ approximately 5,400, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

The move follows Putin’s warning, in a speech last week announcing his operation in Ukraine, that outside countries interfering in Ukraine would face consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history,” a remark many analysts saw as a nuclear hint.

Putin also personally oversaw nuclear exercises earlier this month as tensions mounted over Ukraine.

But instead of backing off, Ukraine’s allies in the West have vowed to increase military support to the government in Kyiv. For the first time, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Sunday that the European Union will finance arms supplies to a country under attack, and the bloc will bar landing and flyovers by Russian aircraft.

NATO nations, including the United States, have said they will not send forces to fight in Ukraine but will attempt to help the government of Volodymyr Zelensky fend off Russia’s attack, as it bars men of fighting age from the leaving the country and hands out weapons to lightly trained volunteers.

Perhaps even more than the military aid, the new economic measures, orchestrated in large part by the Biden administration, are likely to be seen as an unacceptable attack on Putin’s regime, analysts said. The new measures to sever access to the SWIFT interbank messaging system and prohibit Russia’s central bank from rescuing the domestic economy signal a new level of global unity against Putin’s invasion and will dramatically increase the challenges the Russian leader faces at home.

Analysts predicted the new penalties could trigger bank runs and massive inflation in Russia, potentially sparking domestic unrest and representing the harshest such measures slapped on any country in modern times. They follow another signal decision last week when Germany announced it would not approve a major gas pipeline that would have given Russia needed foreign cash.

While Russia’s own military doctrine lays out the potential use of nuclear weapons only in the event the existence of its state is at risk, some Russia experts believe its true trigger point may fall beneath that threshold.

“Here we have to ask to what extent Putin feels that ‘l’état, c’est moi,’ ” said Olga Oliker, Europe and Central Asia director at the International Crisis Group, using a French phrase that translates to “I myself am the nation.” “I can’t answer that question. I can say it worries me just about now.”

A European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an internal analysis of the alert decision, said that Western nations’ apprehension about what they assessed to be Putin’s isolation, his decision-making and his access to realistic information “makes it more concerning than it would otherwise be.”

Some U.S. officials believe the move’s timing, just as Moscow and Kyiv agree to talks on the Belarusian border, is aimed at extracting maximum concessions from Ukraine, such as the resignation of its president and cabinet of advisers, deactivating the country’s military, and a declaration of permanent neutrality, said a senior State Department official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the situation’s ongoing sensitivity.

More European nations ban Russian flights from their airspace — including the entire E.U.

Another diplomat said Putin is not serious about the negotiations with Ukraine, and the nuclear alert combined with its alleged firing of Iskander missiles into Ukraine from Belarus — are a sign to the West to stay out of the conflict.

A senior defense official, speaking to reporters on Sunday morning, said the decision was unnecessary and escalatory.

“Unnecessary because Russia’s never been under threat by the West or by NATO and certainly wasn’t under any threat by Ukraine,” the official said. “And escalatory because it’s clearly potentially putting at play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous.”

While experts said they did not expect Putin to attempt any sort of nuclear strike on the West or a smaller-scale nuclear attack within Ukraine — where conventional Russian forces already have a major advantage — they said the fact the alert was occurring at a time when a major conflict is unfolding on NATO’s borders made it much more dangerous. With tensions already at their highest level in decades, an encounter between Russian and NATO planes over the Baltic Sea, for example, becomes much more perilous.

Officials have said they will not disclose any changes to America’s own nuclear alert status.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the Biden administration was right to refrain from making such an announcement.

“This is where it’s important for President Biden and Putin immediately back away from nuclear saber-rattling and any discussion of nuclear weapons, which have absolutely no place at this moment,” he said.

While Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said Putin’s move was dangerous, he noted that the threat of using nuclear weapons “cost him nothing” while actually using them would “cost him everything.”

“I hope/believe that many of his inner circle will work to prevent this,” Hodges said. “I am looking for signs of dissension within the Kremlin as protests in Moscow grow stronger.”

Paul Sonne, Dan Lamothe, Ashley Parker and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.