WASHINGTON — When Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declared Monday at the end of a stealth visit to Ukraine that America’s goal is to see Russia so “weakened” that it would no longer have the power to invade a neighboring state, he was acknowledging a transformation of the conflict, from a battle over control of Ukraine to one that pits Washington more directly against Moscow.
President Biden entered the war insistent that he did not want to make this a contest between the United States and Russia. Rather, he was simply helping a small, struggling democracy defend itself against takeover by a far more powerful neighbor. “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent,” he said in early March, just two weeks into the war.
He has committed to keeping American troops out of the fight, and has resisted imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine that would risk putting American and Russian forces into direct combat. Yet as Russian war atrocities have become more evident, and Ukraine’s need for heavy armor has increased, the lines have grown blurrier and the rhetoric sharper. At the same time, in word and deed, the United States has been gradually pushing in the direction of undercutting the Russian military.
It has imposed sanctions that were explicitly designed to stop Russia’s military from developing and manufacturing new weapons. It has worked — with mixed success — to cut off the oil and gas revenues that drive its war machine.
The immediate impetus for Mr. Austin’s carefully orchestrated declaration that the United States wants “Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine,” several administration officials said, was to set up President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine with what one senior State Department official called “the strongest possible hand” for what they expect will be some kind of cease-fire negotiations in coming months.
But over the longer term, Mr. Austin’s description of America’s strategic goal is bound to reinforce President Vladimir V. Putin’s oft-stated belief that the war is really about the West’s desire to choke off Russian power and destabilize his government. And by casting the American goal as a weakened Russian military, Mr. Austin and others in the Biden administration are becoming more explicit about the future they see: years of continuous contest for power and influence with Moscow that in some ways resembles what President John F. Kennedy termed the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War.
Mr. Austin’s comments, bolstered by statements by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken about the various ways in which Mr. Putin has “already lost” in the struggle over Ukraine, reflect a decision made by the Biden administration and its closest allies, several officials said on Monday, to talk more openly and optimistically about the possibility of Ukrainian victory in the next few months as the battle moves to the Russian-speaking south and east, where Mr. Putin’s military should, in theory, have an advantage.
At a moment when American intelligence officials are reporting that Mr. Putin thinks he is winning the war, the strategy is to drive home the narrative that Russia’s military adventure will be ruinous, and that it is a conflict Mr. Putin cannot afford to sustain.
But it is a strategy that carries some risks.
“There is a very narrow line to tread here,” James Arroyo, a former senior British national security official who now serves as director of the Ditchley Foundation, a think tank that focuses on promoting democracy. “The risk is that ‘degrade Russian military power’ could easily shift into a degradation of Russia as a power generally — and that Putin will use that to stoke nationalism.”
There is a second risk: that if Mr. Putin believes that his conventional military forces are being strangled, he will turn to stepped-up cyberattacks on Western infrastructure, chemical weapons or his arsenal of tactical, “battlefield” nuclear weapons. It is a possibility that was barely conceivable eight weeks ago, but is regularly discussed today.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setback they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, warned earlier this month.
He said the chances were low. But among the possible scenarios that American officials are examining is one in which Mr. Putin, frustrated by a lack of progress on the ground, detonates a “demonstration” blast over the Black Sea or in an unpopulated area as a warning shot for the West to back off.
But for all its public warnings — designed to defuse Mr. Putin’s episodic nuclear threats — the White House is working to demonstrate publicly that Russia is emerging from the war in a far weaker position, militarily and economically, than it was on Feb. 24. That is the date when Mr. Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine from half a dozen directions in what he hoped would be a blitzkrieg move to decapitate the government. Instead, he was forced into a humiliating retreat, and is refocusing on the country’s south and east, the Russian-speaking territory closest to its own borders.
The new focus should, in theory, favor the Russians. Their supply lines back to Russian territory are far shorter than they were when they sought to take Kyiv, where their tanks and armored personnel carriers, plodding down existing highways, became easy targets. The contested territory in Ukraine’s south and east includes wide-open areas, more suited to Russian-style artillery barrages.
The trip by Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken was scripted to make the case that while on paper the Russians have the advantage, the odds actually favor the Ukrainians, largely because they have the motivation to preserve their homeland.
“The first step in winning is believing you can win,” said Philip M. Breedlove, who served as the supreme allied commander Europe, the top NATO military officer, until 2016. He added that he was glad of Mr. Austin’s language, even if it risked provoking Russia, because “the Ukrainians have to believe that we intend to give them what they need, because that is what will be required for them to win.”
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
A bolder American stance. Speaking after a high-stakes visit to Kyiv, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said that the United States wanted Russia to be “weakened” and unable to rebuild its military from its many losses in Ukraine, reflecting an increasingly emboldened approach from the Biden administration.
On the ground. Russia rained down a barrage of missiles on five railway stations across Ukraine, hours after Mr. Austin and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made a trip by train to the Ukrainian capital. The strikes were part of a broader assault aimed at crippling critical infrastructure in Ukraine.
Diplomatic changes. President Biden nominated Bridget Brink, the current U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, as ambassador to Ukraine, which would fill a position that has remained empty for more than a year. The move comes as Mr. Blinken said that U.S. diplomats will begin returning to the country next week.
What they needed was heavy artillery, and as the Biden administration and other NATO nations have rushed to get that weaponry into Ukrainian hands, the Russians have become increasingly vocal in their warnings that the shipments themselves are an act of aggression — and could be targeted.
The artillery, however, can be justified as largely defense weaponry — they cannot strike far into Russia itself. But Mr. Austin’s statement about keeping Russia from being able to invade anew, in Ukraine or elsewhere, articulated a strategy that has been hinted at, both in public statements and in the type of sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia in the past eight weeks.
The most damaging of those sanctions may be the export controls on high-tech components that the Russian defense industry needs to produce new weapons. Unlike China, America’s other major adversary, Russia has limited capability to manufacture its own chips, and almost no prospect of developing that capability without Western technology.
Announcing some of those export controls in early March, Mr. Biden said his goal with Russia was to “sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.” Now there are anecdotal reports — eagerly amplified by the White House — of the Russian military-industrial complex running short of parts.
“The Russian high-tech and defense sectors are being choked off from key inputs,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters as Mr. Biden headed to a meeting with NATO leaders a month ago. So far it is hard to measure the effects on actual weapons production, and it is unclear if the Russians will succeed in finding alternate sources of supply.
Administration officials deeply involved in the sanctions strategy say it was designed to get worse over time. As capital dries up for investment in new capability, as chip supplies dwindle and energy revenues decline, the squeeze will become more apparent. In time, it will bleed into consumer goods, making it harder for ordinary Russians to buy the iPhones and Androids that seem nearly as ubiquitous on the streets of Moscow as they are in New York.
Still, the question overhanging the strategy described by Mr. Austin is whether it can work. Every American president since Harry Truman has tried to squeeze the North Koreans with crushing sanctions; today, their nuclear arsenal is bigger than ever. Donald Trump often said that the 1,500 sanctions he placed on Iran would bring the country to the bargaining table, begging for a deal. They did not.
Mr. Biden’s aides say they understand that sanctions alone cannot do the trick — what is needed is a highly coordinated mix of sanctions, military pressure and diplomacy. That is a difficult task with smaller states. With a country the size of Russia, armed with nuclear weapons, it becomes a far riskier proposition.