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Putin stirs US concern that he feels cornered and may lash out

Volunteers fill and stack bags Thursday, March 24, 2022, to protect the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Biden administration officials are worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin may lash out dangerously as Russian troops find themselves bogged down in Ukraine and Western sanctions begin to bite.

The internal assessment of senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, is that Putin’s tendency when boxed in is to escalate rather than back down. Their view is that the Russian leader’s choices could include the blanket bombing of Ukrainian cities or the use of chemical weapons — or even tactical nuclear weapons.

One of the hardest challenges facing the U.S. and its European allies is trying to anticipate the next move of someone they see as behaving in an increasingly erratic manner and who they fear could become even more dangerous amid signs Russia’s military campaign has not gone according to plan. The failure to quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s military raises the risk of what Western intelligence agencies are calling “vertical escalation.”

As President Joe Biden put it bluntly Monday: “His back is against the wall” and “the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ.”

NATO leaders on Thursday pledged to step up their defenses against the threat of chemical and nuclear weapon attacks. In the lead-up to an emergency meeting in Brussels, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Biden issued increasingly urgent public warnings, citing Russian disinformation as an indicator of what Putin may be planning.

At a news conference, the U.S. leader was pressed on what the evidence he had of a possible attack. “I’m not going to give you intelligence data, No. 1,” Biden said. “No. 2, we would respond, we would respond if he uses it. But the nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use.”

Administration officials are analyzing how Putin got into the fix he’s in. One official said Putin had bad intelligence going into Ukraine — specifically about what kind of resistance Russian forces would face and about his military’s shortfalls in logistics, strategic planning and the quality of weaponry.

It may have stemmed in large part from an unwillingness by those around Putin to deliver bad news, one official said, and now Russian forces are bogged down and risk running out of high-end munitions.

NATO officials are studying a range of scenarios concerning Russia’s possible use of chemical agents as weapons of mass destruction, alliance officials said.

A “false flag” event could involve a staged “accident” at a chemical plant given the significant amounts of ammonia, chlorine and nitrates in Ukraine that are used in its agricultural industry. Under that theory, Russia would blame Ukraine for creating a deadly hazard and respond by deploying more destructive weapons.

Another scenario considers Russia using a chemical weapon that could involve a highly toxic agent delivered across a wide area, the officials said. Such attacks, however, would allow immediate attribution to Russia, and it’s unclear whether Putin would want to avoid that, they added.

Still, a senior defense official told reporters this week that the U.S. has seen no evidence of Russian preparations for an imminent chemical or biological attack. Russian officials have repeatedly denied any intention to use such weapons, and the Kremlin says the military operation is going according to plan.

The worry though is that there is no public sign so far that Putin is seeking any kind of off-ramp. On the contrary, this week’s demand that “unfriendly” countries pay for Russian gas in rubles, not foreign currency, was read by some observers as a veiled threat.

Just two days after Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, he put Russian nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty,” following a warning that any nation that interfered with the invasion would suffer “consequences that you have never experienced in your history.”

Four weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin faces pressures on the battlefield and with the Russian economy, which is under an unprecedented barrage of Western sanctions. Russia’s military has so far failed to encircle Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv and is increasingly digging in for defensive positions, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Wednesday.

NATO estimates indicate that at least 7,000 Russian troops have died and that the actual death toll could be as high as 15,000.

Despite concerns over Putin’s potential next moves, U.S. officials say they are confident in a strong and united allied response if he does choose to escalate. It would, for example, force countries such as Germany to back sanctions on Russia’s energy exports, a move that Berlin and others have so far resisted.

Overall, U.S. officials remain pessimistic about continuing talks between Russia and Ukraine, suggesting that Ukrainian concessions still fall short of a settlement Putin could spin as a victory at home and abroad. And from the start, Putin has made clear that he sees Ukraine as an existential issue, part of what he increasingly describes as an inevitable conflict between a resurgent Russia and a weakening West.

As concern builds about the possibility that Putin may escalate, officials have also begun to consider an alternative: that he reassesses his war aims in the light of his unexpected setbacks, according to two officials familiar with the matter.

Instead of achieving regime change in Kyiv or a full occupation of Ukraine, Putin may focus on reinforcing the Russian presence in the eastern Donbas and Luhansk regions and insisting on his initial demand that the country disavow its past ambitions to join NATO.

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