With his strategy to “weaken” Russia, the U.S. president may be turning the Ukraine war into a global one.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.

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U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and combatant commanders at the White House in Washington on April 20.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and combatant commanders at the White House in Washington on April 20. WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

In a dramatic series of shifts this week, U.S. President Joe Biden and his NATO allies have escalated their policy of helping to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression into a policy of undermining the power and influence of Russia itself. In so doing, some observers fear, they are leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin little choice but to surrender or double down militarily, raising the possibility of widening his war beyond Ukraine.

On Thursday, Biden urged Congress to provide $33 billion in additional military, economic, and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine—more than double the previous amount—and said he was sending a clear message to Putin: “You will never succeed in dominating Ukraine.” Beyond that, Biden said in remarks at the White House, the new policy was intended “to punish Russian aggression, to lessen the risk of future conflicts.”

That followed an equally clear declaration this week from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who after a meeting in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the U.S. objective is now to curtail Russia’s power over the long term so it does not have the “capability to reproduce” its military assault on Ukraine. “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said in a stopover in Poland.

The shift may have been what prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to declare afterward that Washington and the West had entered a “proxy” war with Russia, risking another world war that, Lavrov warned, could go nuclear. “The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it,” Lavrov said. Putin also again suggested this week, as he has since the beginning of his invasion on Feb. 24, that he still had the option of using nuclear weapons against NATO, saying, “We have all the instruments for this [to respond to a direct threat to Russia]—ones nobody else can boast of. And we will use them, if we have to.”

The newly aggressive U.S. approach won plaudits from many quarters—in particular from current and former NATO officials who insist the Russian nuclear counterthreats are only empty rhetoric.

“It’s the only way to go forward,” said former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in an interview. “In Putin’s thinking it doesn’t make any difference, because he would only claim that the Western policy is to weaken Russia anyway. So why not speak openly about it? The mistake we made in the past was to underestimate the ambitions of Vladimir Putin, to underestimate his brutality. At the same time, we overestimated the strength of the Russian military.”

The new U.S. and NATO strategy is partly based on Ukraine’s continuing battlefield success against Putin, who has been forced to scale down his ambitions from a full takeover of Ukraine to a major new assault in its eastern and southern parts. NATO allies including Germany, which until this week had equivocated on sending heavy offensive weaponry to Ukraine, have ratcheted up their aid in response. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, under political pressure at home and abroad, announced earlier this week that his country would provide 50 anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine.

Yet other Russia experts expressed worry that the United States and its Western allies are, in effect, crossing the very redlines they have avoided until now. For most of the two-month conflict, Biden has refused to authorize any military support, such as major offensive weapons or a no-fly zone, that might be perceived as putting U.S. or NATO forces in direct conflict with Russia. Now, some observers worry that with the additional aid and tougher economic sanctions, the U.S. president is forcing Putin into a corner in which he can only fight on or surrender. The latter course would mean relinquishing Putin’s career-long aim of strengthening Russia against the West. Yet Putin, who has long said the West’s goal was to weaken or contain Russia, has never been known to surrender during his decade and a half of aggressive moves against neighboring countries, mainly Ukraine and Georgia.

“In the Kremlin’s eyes the West is out to get Russia. It was unspoken before. Now it’s spoken,” said Sean Monaghan, an expert on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you combine this with Biden’s comments, at his summit in Poland last month, that ‘this man [Putin] cannot remain in power,’ all that turns this a territorial war into a wider confrontation and might make negotiating a settlement to end the war in Ukraine far more difficult or even impossible at the present.” (Biden officials later said that the president was not seeking regime change in Russia.)

George Beebe, a former chief of Russia analysis for the CIA, said that the Biden administration may be in danger of forgetting that the “the most important national interest that the United States has is avoiding a nuclear conflict with Russia.” He added that “the Russians have the ability to make sure everyone else loses if they lose too. And that may be where we’re heading. It’s a dangerous corner to turn.”

Perhaps the most worrisome turn of events is that there no longer appears to be any possibility of a negotiated way out of the war—despite Putin’s statement to visiting United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres that he still hopes for such a solution.

“It’s one thing to pursue a policy of weakening Putin, quite another to say it out loud. We have to find a way for Putin to achieve a political solution, so perhaps it is not wise to state this,” said one senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s getting more dangerous,” said Charles Kupchan, a former senior U.S. official and now a scholar of international relations at Georgetown University. “We need to start moving beyond Javelins and anti-tank missiles and talk about a political endgame.” Or, as Beebe put it, “We need to find a way of somehow discreetly conveying to the Russians that we would be willing to ease sanctions in the context of an international settlement. The military aid to Ukraine could also be used as leverage.”

Yet any such negotiation looks less likely than ever. Both sides appear to be settling in for a long fight. After meeting with Putin and Lavrov on Tuesday, Guterres acknowledged that an imminent cease-fire was not in the cards and that the war “will not end with meetings.”

Only a month ago Zelensky was floating the idea of a neutral Ukraine that did not join NATO, and he suggested that separatist forces in eastern Ukraine should be acknowledged. But Zelensky has since told European Council President Charles Michel that, in light of Russian atrocities, Ukrainian public opinion was against negotiations and favored continuing the war.

Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden have indicated they are interested in joining the NATO alliance, breaking with their longtime policy of nonalignment and potentially creating a new hair-trigger environment along Russia’s northern border. That would deliver a devastating blow to Putin, who has often cited NATO’s eastward expansion as a casus belli for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And there is little prospect that any of these tensions will abate anytime soon. Austin also convened a 40-nation “Ukraine Contact Group” this week that was readying itself for what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley has said is likely a “protracted conflict” that will be “at least measured in years.”

Biden has not said what the U.S. response might be if Putin deploys tactical or strategic nuclear weapons. Moreover, neither side has set any clear rules in the post-Cold War environment for the deployment of nuclear weapons—especially as Cold War-era arms agreements such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty have been shelved and nuclear weapon delivery systems have become faster and more governed by automatic digitized systems. Under a Kremlin policy known as “escalating to de-escalate”—threatening to go nuclear if the West tries to stop him—Putin has year by year reintroduced nuclear weapons into his conventional war calculations. During his two decades in power, he has authorized the construction of nuclear-powered cruise missiles, transoceanic nuclear-armed torpedoes, hypersonic glide vehicles, and more low-yield nuclear weapons on the European continent.

Yet Putin has never come this close to threatening to use them, nor has he made clear if or how he might do so. Until the Ukraine crisis, U.S. strategists had not considered their deployment to be a credible threat. Most believe Putin would first escalate using cyberattacks or other non-nuclear capabilities.

Many experts also say they don’t believe the Russian president would gain much advantage from the use of tactical nuclear weapons inside Ukraine—and he is considered enough of a rational actor that he would never contemplate launching nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States. But Putin has also indicated previously that he cannot accept the separation of an independent Ukraine from Russian control, writing in a July 2021 essay that such a development would be “comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”

Robert Gallucci, a former senior U.S. nuclear arms negotiator, said the Russian nuclear threats are a new tactic and “should be taken seriously if we were to get involved directly in conflict with Russian forces in or around Ukraine, that is, on or across the Russian border.”

Beebe, who is currently director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said he believed the outcome would most likely stretch into a volatile stalemate—but one that could well be more unstable and dangerous than much of the Cold War. “Most likely we’re going to end up in some sort of long-term unstable confrontation that divides Ukraine and divides Europe where there aren’t rules of the game,” he said. “It’s not so much a new cold war as it is a festering wound in Europe.”

Matters could get even dicier if a newly emboldened West and NATO expand their reach beyond Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, as British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss suggested in a speech this week. Truss said that “NATO must have a global outlook, ready to tackle global threats. We need to preempt threats in the Indo-Pacific, working with our allies like Japan and Australia to ensure the Pacific is protected. And we must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves.”

That in turn raises the prospect for a drawn-out global cold war with not only Russia but China as well. And it is one that could easily turn hot, Beebe said, with the United States and its allies faced off against an alliance of “a resource-rich Russia partnered with a technologically and economically powerful China.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh