For nine weeks, President Joe Biden and the Western allies have emphasized the need to keep the war for Ukraine inside Ukraine.
Now, the fear in Washington and European capitals is that the conflict may soon escalate into a wider war — spreading to neighboring states, to cyberspace and to NATO countries suddenly facing a Russian cutoff of gas. Over the long term, such an expansion could evolve into a more direct conflict between Washington and Moscow reminiscent of the Cold War, as each seeks to sap the other’s power.
In the past three days, the U.S. secretary of defense has called for an effort to degrade the capability of the Russian military so that it could not invade another country for years to come. The Russians have cut off gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria, which joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union; Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, immediately denounced the move as an “instrument of blackmail.” Explosions have rocked a disputed area of Moldova, a natural next target for the Russians, and gas depots and even a missile factory in Russia have mysteriously caught fire or come under direct attack from Ukrainian forces.
And with increasing frequency, the Russians are reminding the world of the size and power of their nuclear arsenal, an unsubtle warning that if President Vladimir Putin’s conventional forces face any more humiliating losses, he has other options. U.S. and European officials say they see no evidence the Russians are mobilizing their battlefield nuclear forces, but behind the scenes, the officials are already gaming out how they might react to a Russian nuclear test, or demonstration explosion, over the Black Sea or on Ukrainian territory.