“We believe President Putin has made the decision,” Mr. Blinken said on Sunday, “but until the tanks actually roll and the planes fly, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from moving this forward.
Information passed to Mr Biden from intelligence agencies was unclear whether Mr Putin’s orders would lead to a massive invasion or a more gradual approach that would give the Russian leader more opportunities to exploit the cracks just below the surface in the Western alliance arrayed against him. He could, for example, test the proposition that Germany or Italy, the two Western European countries most dependent on gas supplied by Russia, could weaken in their resolve.
These are the scenarios that were discussed most intensely this weekend at the Munich Security Conference, the annual meeting of government ministers, business leaders and strategists, where participants explained the choices of Mr Putin.
“If he intends to escalate, I don’t think it’s a sudden blitzkrieg in Kyiv and the ousting of the Zelensky government,” said Ian Bremmer, chairman of Eurasia Group, a geopolitical consultancy. “It looks much more like a recognition of the independence of the separatist territory” around Luhansk, to the east.
“You hope, if you are Putin, that this will lead to more nervousness from some NATO allies, less alignment with NATO, more opportunities for Russia to get what it wants without having to enter Ukraine on a large scale,” Bremmer said. .
A few weeks ago, some US officials shared this sentiment. Mr. Putin, they noted, presumably wanted to achieve his goal – a halt to Ukraine’s drift to the West – cheaply and with as few casualties as possible. All he was looking for was a friendly and flexible government like the one he has in Belarus, said a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to ongoing diplomatic efforts. The President of Belarus, Alexander G. Lukashenko, linked his country’s security to the presence of the Russian army. (“They will stay here as long as necessary,” said Mr. Lukashenko, who plans to invite Russia to return its nuclear weapons to Belarusian territory.)
It would, many suspect, be a refinement of Russia’s hybrid warfare playbook. “Putin has developed and demonstrated over a decade of aggressive action that he knows how to hone a hard-to-attribute grayscale war,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat close to Mr. Biden.