WASHINGTON — The CIA director said Thursday that the “potential desperation” to achieve a semblance of victory in Ukraine could prompt Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to order the use of a tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon, publicly discussing for the first time a concern that ran through the White House during seven weeks of conflict.
Director William J. Burns, who served as US ambassador to Russia and is the administration official who has dealt most often with Mr. Putin, said the potential detonation of such a weapon — even as a warning shot – was a possibility. about which the United States remained “very concerned”. But he was quick to warn that so far, despite Mr Putin’s frequent invocations of nuclear threats, he had seen no ‘practical evidence’ of the kinds of military deployments or weapon movements that would suggest such a movement was imminent.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks they have faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to arms tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Burns said during a question-and-answer session following a speech he gave at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
He spoke in response to a question from former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, who helped create the program that took nuclear weapons out of Ukraine and other former Soviet states 30 years ago. .
Tactical weapons are sometimes referred to as “battlefield nuclear weapons”, smaller weapons that can be fired from a mortar or even exploded like a mine, as opposed to “strategic” weapons which are placed on intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia has a vast arsenal of tactical weapons; the United States retains relatively few. Low-yield nuclear weapons were designed to produce a fairly small explosion, which sometimes blurs the difference between conventional and nuclear weapons.
Mr Burns also argued that the disclosure of Mr Putin’s intentions by US intelligence officials before the outbreak of war made it harder for Mr Putin to hide the “raw brutality” his forces used in Ukraine. , reminiscent of Russian damage. forces inflicted in Chechnya in the 1990s.
“I have watched Putin simmering in an explosive combination of grievances, ambition and insecurity over the years,” Mr Burns said. He said the Russian president had harbored grievances against the West for decades, believing the United States had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
President Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, both acknowledged on Thursday that the White House was debating sending a senior official to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in a show of support for the government. of President Volodymyr Zelensky. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently made a secret trip to Kyiv by train.
Mr. Sullivan said the White House had briefly considered bringing Mr. Biden into Ukraine, but as soon as it became clear “what kind of footprint that would take, what kind of assets would that take from Ukrainians as well as in the USA”. to ensure his safety, the idea was rejected.
When pressed to learn that he, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken or Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III might travel to Kyiv, Sullivan declined to discuss it, saying that “If and when that happens, we want to make sure it’s done in a very secure way. Mr Biden told reporters that no decision had been made to send an envoy.
Sullivan also said that in the coming days the United States would announce a crackdown on countries and companies violating Western sanctions on Moscow, imposed since the invasion began in late February.
The Commerce Department on Thursday identified 10 planes that flew to or were operated by Belarus, with the apparent intention of registering them in Russia. The sanctions would prevent aircraft from being serviced or refueled internationally, thereby grounding them.
Mr. Sullivan had made a similar vow to crack down on violators just before Mr. Biden’s trip to Brussels and Warsaw last month. But on Thursday, speaking at the Economic Club of Washington, he said he believed some of the sanctions — particularly controls on defense technology exports — were starting to hurt Russia’s military preparedness.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Hard blow for the Russian forces. The flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet suffered catastrophic damage that forced the crew to abandon her. Russia said a fire caused the damage, although Ukraine claimed to have hit the vessel with missiles. The ship then sank while being towed to port.
“Russia’s ability to re-equip and re-supply,” he said, was in decline because many of its systems “rely on microchips and Western components.”
“They’re running out of some of the high-end weapons,” Sullivan added, though he acknowledged that Russia’s continued purchase of natural gas was helping fund the war.
“I’m not here to suggest that we’ve robbed them of those resources so much that they literally can’t deploy an army and keep trying to make progress on the battlefield,” Sullivan said. But he said Washington was stepping up efforts to help Europe wean off Russian gas by delivering supplies of liquefied natural gas from the United States.
But Mr. Sullivan also said that so far he had seen no evidence that China was stepping in to help Mr. Putin with military or financial assistance. His statement was notable because Mr. Biden, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping four weeks ago, warned of U.S. sanctions if China helped the war effort. But evidence since then suggests that despite Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi’s declaration in February that their relationship has “no limits”, China actually appears to have mixed views on the degree of support for the war.
Both Mr. Burns and Mr. Sullivan have acknowledged that the war is entering a new phase now that Russia appears to have narrowed its focus to capturing the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where pro-separatists Russians have been fighting since 2014.
General Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who is now retired, said on Thursday that while Mr Putin could perhaps portray his smaller operation as a victory, the war would be a loss for long-term Russia.
“Ukraine will again try to fight what I call the American War of Independence, skirmishing, counter-attacking and ambushing,” General Breedlove said. “It will just be a lot harder for them.”
By moving his forces east, Mr Putin is seeking to shift the war to more favorable territory, trying to make it harder for Ukrainian forces to stick to those tactics. “They are now ready to fight the war they really want,” General Breedlove said. “They want to face force against force in open fields.”