A Russian airborne soldier takes aim. Russian troops have met unexpected Ukrainian resistance. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

European and American officials are sounding numerous alarms over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistent threats to use nuclear weapons in order to stop advancing Ukrainian forces. Putin suggests he might even aim them at the wider West.

“I want the Kiev regime and their sponsors in the West to hear me, to heed me,” Putin warned in a speech last week to Russian officials who gathered to watch him approve the annexation of four Ukrainian regions. “I am not bluffing.” 

In response, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin tried to calm nerves – yet simultaneously put everyone on edge. “I don’t see anything right now that would lead me to believe that he has made such a decision,” Austin said on US television.

Then he added, “There are no checks on Mr Putin. Just as he made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, you know, he could make another decision.”

On Tuesday, Russian foreign ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov told the United Nations General Assembly that US and NATO help for Ukraine “brings the situation closer to the dangerous line of a direct military clash between Russia and NATO.”

The back and forth over nuclear war coincided with the Ukrainian success in retaking territory that had been seized and occupied by Russia’s army. But experts also noted there are intermediate offensive steps Putin might take before launching an atomic World War III.

Rather than a nuclear attack, a more logical Russian escalation would be a conventional bombing on European territory, said Marco Rubio, a US senator from the state of Florida. He pointed out that NATO weapon supplies pass through Western Europe on their way to the battlefield in Ukraine.

“The thing I worry about most is a Russian attack inside NATO territory, for example aiming at the airport in Poland or some other distribution point,” said Rubio, who is a member of the Senate intelligence committee, which receives briefings on the war from the Biden administration.

Such an event would put NATO in a bind: Its treaty obliges everyone to defend any member against an attack. But with how much force? With conventional weapons or nuclear? On Russian military targets or even cities?

“NATO would have to respond,” Rubio said. “A lot of it would depend on the scale and nature of the strike.”

US Army Sergeant Keegan Davis finishes laying out parts of machine guns onto the front of an M1A2 Abrams tank after conducting a live-fire accuracy screening test as part of the exercise Defender 22 at Mielno Range, Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, May 11, 2022. US policymakers are weighing the possibility of a Russian attack on NATO inside Poland. Photo: US Army National Guard / Sgt. Tara Fajardo Arteaga

In any event, Putin has already taken incremental steps short of unleashing atom bombs. One move – the alleged Russian sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II natural gas pipelines – appears to be directed at a weak point in the European economy. The system is a project of the Russian gas giant Gazprom in partnership with a coterie of German companies.

The full neutralization of gas flows appears to show that Russia is willing and able to increase economic pressure on the West, even at a cost to itself. “I think we actually crossed the point where this is negotiable in any way,” said Nina Khrushcheva, the daughter of late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and currently a professor at The New School in New York.

Another not-so-subtle escalation was the rocket assault on a civilian car convoy heading east into formerly Russian-held territory. It killed 24 people, including 13 children and one pregnant woman.

That attack followed a series of other atrocities aimed at civilians. In an investigation into the deaths of 485 people in the town of Bucha, Human Rights Watch “found extensive evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.”

“I think we are now in a new level of confrontation,” Krushcheva told CBC Canadian public television. “All sides are determined not to lose and not to show weakness. I think we are getting to a very dangerous point.”

Putin’s “partial mobilization” of up to 300,000 conscripts is meant to provide manpower in the rear of Russian-held territory to free up troops at weak points at the front, a NATO intelligence official said.

The quick advance of the Ukrainian army into occupied territory in northeastern Ukraine was partly facilitated by Russia’s transfer of troops from the area to its own defensive positions in the south.

A Russian military spokesman in Moscow acknowledged the setback and said it was due to the enemy’s “superior tank units.”

The Ukrainian army will likely try to mop up Russian defenses north of Lyman, a transport hub it conquered last week, and perhaps conquer Borova, another major town in the area. Russian troops retreated from Lyman in such a hurry that they left at least 18 bodies of fallen comrades on a road exiting the city.

Ukrainian success in the north was in part due to the Russian transfer of troops to the south to fend off a Ukrainian offensive against the city of Kherson north of the Black Sea, on the west bank of the Dnieper River.

Kherson, the hub of a rich farming area, was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to the Russians after its invasion in late February. Its loss would intensify the sudden display of public consternation over the course of the war and over Putin’s decision to bring in new troops.

After weeks of efforts, the Ukrainians finally pushed some Russian forces from the west bank of the Dnieper eastward. On the online messaging service Telegram, a Russian – a blogger named Rybar – wrote that surrendering the west bank of the Dnieper is “an immediate danger.”

A Russian soldier takes aim along the Ukrainian border. Photo: Facebook

Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, told his 600,000 subscribers on Telegram, “Well, there will be no good news in the near future” from Kherson. “In many sectors, the fatigue has set in after a long offensive period, during which large territories have been liberated. But there is no longer any strength left to hold them.”

On Tuesday, prominent newspapers among Russia’s tightly-controlled media chimed in with criticism. “The current situation has developed in conditions of insufficient personnel,” wrote Izvestia. “There is no alternative to the retreat of the Russian Federation Armed Force.”

Komsmolskaya Pravda suggested, “We need to hold out for a couple of months until these mobilized ones turn into normal units and go into battle.”

In short, for now, Russia may now go into a military holding pattern.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.