Biden & Putin’s Nuclear Blurred Lines

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
August 15, 2023

Ukraine’s quest to bring the war back to Russia has been going well, perhaps even a little too well. In the last few weeks, drones have hit targets across Russia, including its capital. Mysterious explosions keep rocking Russian cities, including a deadly one at a military optics plant just outside Moscow. The border regions are under constant bombardment, and Kyiv keeps attacking the various bridges connecting the Russian mainland to illegally occupied Crimea. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky boasted on Sunday that the latest such attack—“an eloquent smoke” on the Crimean bridge—was Ukraine’s riposte to “Russia’s crimes,” none of which, he said, would be left without a forceful response. 

If you have been even distantly following this war, you’ll likely recall that going after Crimea and striking the Russian heartland were both things that the Biden administration considered to be no-goes, given the risk of greater potential reprisals. Fear of escalation was—and continues to be—one reason that the White House has refused to supply Kyiv with ATACMS, long-range missiles that could strike Russian territory. Indeed, from the earliest days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the White House strategy has been to prevent Vladimir Putin from doing something drastic, like attacking a NATO neighbor and thereby dragging the U.S. into a direct war with Russia, or, worst of all, a nuclear confrontation. “The threat of escalation” became a mantra in Washington, both as an expression of real fear and as a rationale for tempering and calibrating military support for Ukraine. 

And yet, if you talk to administration members in private, neither the repeated drone strikes on Moscow nor the constant hits on Russian bridges to Crimea have caused much alarm. Recently, I spoke to a senior State Department official who seemed positively unperturbed. “Reasonable people can disagree about whether this is a productive strategy,” the official said. “You can certainly understand it as a rational response. Ukraine has said that it wants to make sure Russians feel pain on their territory. And if you survey the targets, you see the actor behind it going after legitimate military targets. They’re not striking schools, hospitals, grain or civilian infrastructure. On the flip side, if you’re a Ukrainian citizen who’s worried about your own security, if you see a drone strike in Moscow and it’s followed by a barrage of missiles across Ukraine, you think that, in the cost-benefit analysis, maybe it doesn’t make sense.”