Biden calls out Putin's actions - but is he pushing Moscow to war?

President Biden and his aides have worked to expose President Putin's plans, declassifying intelligence and calling him an "aggressor". PHOTOS: REUTERS, AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - At key moments since the Ukraine crisis flared into the headlines two months ago, President Joe Biden and his aides have worked to expose Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans, declassifying intelligence about his next steps and calling him out as an "aggressor".

The administration has revealed information that could only have been obtained by penetrating, at least to some degree, Russia's military and intelligence systems. The Pentagon declared publicly that the force Mr Putin was assembling on three of Ukraine's borders would reach 175,000 or more before an invasion began, a piece of data one cannot discern from looking at a satellite photograph.

A few weeks later, it said Moscow would try to stage a provocation - a "false flag attack" on its own forces or allies - to create a pretext to act. Then the Pentagon encouraged the British to reveal a Russian plan to install a puppet government in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Each of those revelations was part of a strategy to get ahead of the Russians in an area where Moscow has long excelled: information warfare.

But the disclosures also raised the issue of whether, in trying to disrupt Moscow's actions by revealing them in advance, the administration is deterring Russian action or spurring it on. The administration's goal is to cut the Russians off at each turn by exposing their plans and forcing them to think of alternative strategies. But that approach could provoke Mr Putin at a moment when US intelligence officials believe he has not yet decided whether to invade.

Democracies are usually terrible at information warfare, and US officials insist there is a difference between what they are doing and the dark arts that Mr Putin made famous.

Russia often makes up its narratives, and its officials have no problem with lying outright, as they did when Mr Putin created a pretext to annex Crimea in 2014, sent operatives to use nerve agents against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a former Russian spy in Britain, and launched series of cyber attacks on the United States.

The US and British warnings, officials insist, are drawn from what they view as a credible stream of intelligence assessments and have been backed up by commercial satellite photography and Twitter posts showing a massive force assembling on Ukraine's borders.

Naturally, officials refuse to talk about how they obtained the underlying information about Russia's plans. But several of the disclosures have triggered debates about whether the US or its allies risked giving away their sources and methods, the most precious resource in the intelligence world.

"Regardless of how this plays out, it will be a great case study in the pre-emptive use of intelligence," said Mr Paul Kolbe, a former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Central Eurasia Division, who worked in Russia as Mr Putin rose and now directs the Intelligence Project at Harvard University.

But already that strategy of raising alarms has triggered some discomfort. Ukraine's leadership has objected to the US characterisation that an invasion is "imminent" - or even likely.

"They make it as acute and burning as possible," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy complained the other day, a point he made more vividly to Mr Biden in a phone call last week. "In my opinion, this is a mistake."

The source of Mr Zelenskyy's concern is understandable: He does not want Ukrainians to panic, the stock market to tank or investors and foreign executives to race to the airport. And Mr Biden's communications aides have toned it down a little bit, dropping the word "imminent" from their warnings of a Russian invasion.

"We stopped using it because I think it sent a message that we weren't intending to send, which was that we knew President Putin had made a decision," White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged during a briefing.

But other administration officials said they thought they saw signs that Mr Putin himself was thrown a bit by the aggressive US approach. At a news conference on Tuesday (Feb 1), he accused the White House of reviving the Cold War strategy of containment - and then said he thought the Biden administration was trying to goad him into an attack, as an excuse to trigger sanctions.

"In this sense, Ukraine itself is just an instrument to achieve this goal," Mr Putin said. "This can be done in different ways, by drawing us into some kind of armed conflict and, with the help of their allies in Europe, forcing the introduction against us of those harsh sanctions they are talking about now in the US."

But to many inside the administration, what Mr Putin omitted was more important than what he said. There was no threat that the US and Nato must yield to his demands that troops leave the former Soviet bloc nations that are now part of Nato and that all nuclear weapons be removed from Europe, or he will be forced into what he has previously and mysterious called "military/technical means". It may have been a temporary omission.

And Mr Putin did say that the US and Nato responses, the text of which leaked to a Spanish newspaper, addressed none of his core concerns. But he suggested there was still some time for diplomacy, striking a very different tone from his demand a few weeks ago that he needed "written guarantees", and needed them immediately.

Some who have jousted with Mr Putin for years saw a man looking for a way out.

Mr William Taylor, a long-time diplomat who served as US ambassador to Ukraine, said on Wednesday that he thought Mr Biden's more aggressive posture - a shift he calls "from passive deterrence to active deterrence" - was working.

"I think Putin has already blinked in some sense," Mr Taylor, who burst into public view when he testified at the impeachment hearings of former president Donald Trump, said in an interview. "He was in a stare-down. And now, he is looking for a way out. He's overplayed his hand and he may, for a while, settle for entering negotiations on a series of topics."

Others are not so sure.

Some Russia experts inside and outside the government say that while Mr Putin is seeking respect for Russia as a great power and real attention to his security needs - complaints that the West has largely ignored - lengthy negotiations over new arms control treaties or reciprocal limits on troop movements and exercises are unlikely to satisfy him. He will want concrete concessions now, in this view, before he can pull back from the border.

Several administration officials say they think Mr Putin's interest in diplomacy is purely tactical, and temporary. They suspect he does not have all his forces amassed yet and may not want to cross President Xi Jinping of China by invading just as the Winter Olympics are beginning in Beijing. Mr Putin is emerging from a long Covid-19-related isolation to join the celebration later this week, and he will use the moment to meet Mr Xi, with whom he has formed something of an alliance of convenience.

The Olympics end around Feb 20, and the administration's Russia hands say that will be the time to assess whether they have had any effect. Perhaps, they say, Mr Putin will test Mr Biden by trying to take more territory in the Russian-speaking east and south. Perhaps he will try to undermine the Zelenskyy government by turning off the power, or communications.

But several echoed Mr Biden's statement two weeks ago at a news conference, when he said: "My guess is he will move in. He has to do something."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.