The New York Times reported Wednesday that the US is warming to the idea of helping Ukraine strike Crimea, something the Biden administration has previously avoided due to the risk of provoking a major response from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Citing unnamed US officials, the report said that after months of discussions with Ukrainian officials, the administration is now “starting to concede that Kyiv may need the power to strike the Russian sanctuary, even if such a move increases the risk of escalation.”
President Biden is still holding off sending the longer-range missiles that could hit targets in Crimea that Ukraine is seeking. But the US is discussing with Ukrainian officials how to attack the land bridge to Crimea Russia has secured for itself using US-provided weapons, such as US-provided HIMARS rocket systems and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
The US, for the first time, pledged to send 50 Bradleys in an over $3 billion weapons package that was announced earlier this month. The Bradleys could potentially help Ukraine go on the offensive, and a US official said the HIMARS could be used to hit Russian supply lines coming out of Crimea from Ukraine’s line in Kherson.
A senior US official told the Times that US and Ukrainian officials are set to meet in Germany this week to wargame out a potential offensive against Russia in southern Ukraine. But the report said that even with the additional military aid, the Biden administration doesn’t think Ukraine can actually take Crimea from Russia.
The US thinking is that Crimea needs to be under threat to give Ukraine leverage for any future negotiations. Even though the risk of escalation is extremely high, US officials said there has been a “dampening of fears that targeting Crimea would drive Mr. Putin to use a tactical nuclear weapon.”
The lessening concern about Putin resorting to nukes appears to be based only on the fact that he hasn’t used any up to this point. This reflects a December report from The Times of London that said the Pentagon was tacitly backing Ukrainian attacks inside Russia because Putin didn’t respond to earlier attacks with a tactical nuclear weapon or by attacking NATO territory.
The New York Times report quoted Dara Massicot, a researcher from the RAND Corporation, who claimed that “Crimea has already been hit many times without a massive escalation from the Kremlin.” But Massicot’s claim is false as Russia began launching missile strikes on vital Ukrainian infrastructure in response to the October truck bombing of the Crimean Bridge.
Before the bridge bombing, Russia didn’t launch large-scale attacks on infrastructure in Ukraine, but now such bombardments have become routine, and millions of Ukrainians are struggling to power and heat their homes.
US officials admit that they don’t know how Putin would respond to the US supporting Ukrainian attacks on Crimea. Putin has previously warned he could use nuclear weapons to protect Russia’s “territorial integrity,” and Russia’s military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons if the country faces an “existential threat.”