Banning Dostoevsky from university courses & disabled Russians from the Paralympics won't help

March 05, 2022

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took the unusual step of speaking directly to the world's Jews during an address on Wednesday, as if Jews somehow have a mythical power to stop a Russian war. (Screenshot above from a Ukrainian government Facebook page.)

During his 2019 presidential campaign, Zelensky, a comedian turned politician, dismissed the subject of his Jewish identity. In a 2019 interview with French-Jewish writer Bernard-Henri Levy, Zelensky declined to speak about his Jewish background, responding to a question about it by saying: "The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults."

At a ceremony last year at Babi Yar, Zelensky did not mention the fact that some of his relatives were murdered there.

 

Above, Ukrainian-born Israelis pray at Jerusalem's Western Wall on Thursday

 

TOM GROSS: BANNING DOSTOEVSKY AT ITALIAN UNIVERSITIES & DISABLED RUSSIANS FROM PARALYMPICS WON'T HELP UKRAINE

[Note by Tom Gross]

You may be interested in watching a TV interview with me from a couple of days ago about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Here is the full version (16 minutes):

An isolated Russia and a cornered Putin can be even more dangerous

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go6OGQhAVmw



 



And a shorter one (9 minutes)

Banning Dostoevsky at Italian universities & disabled Russians from Paralympics won't help Ukraine

https://youtu.be/eQELlpYMG-c



 



I attach four articles below.

Interestingly, the article from today's New York Times titled "Washington's Newest Worry: The Dangers of Cornering Putin" uses the same phrase "The Dangers of Cornering Putin" that I used in my writings and interviews earlier this week.

Please note that Babyn Yar is the newly Ukrainianized spelling some international media have started using for the site better known internationally as Babi Yar.

Many in the west have switched to Ukrainian language usage for some terms in recent days, including the British supermarket chains renaming their chicken kievs, chicken kyivs.

It would be a bit like the international media suddenly referring to Yerushalayim instead of Jerusalem, or Hevron instead of Hebron, or Yafo instead of Jaffa, or Praha instead of using the word Prague that has Germanic origins.

 

CONTENTS

1. "Babyn Yar wasn't bombed. But Ukraine's Zelensky finds a useful tool to rally Jews to his cause" (By Cnaan Liphshiz, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, March 3, 2022)

2. "The war in Ukraine is not about Putin's mental health. Armchair psychology tells us nothing about Russian invasion" (By Joanna Williams, Spiked Online, March 1, 2022)

3. Putin speaks (Sky News)

4. "Fact and Mythmaking Blend in Ukraine's Information War" (By Stuart Thompson and Davey Alba, The New York Times, March 4, 2022)

5. "Washington's Newest Worry: The Dangers of Cornering Putin" (By David Sanger, The New York Times, March 5, 2022)

 

ARTICLES

BABYN YAR WASN'T BOMBED. BUT UKRAINE'S ZELENSKY FINDS A USEFUL TOOL TO RALLY JEWS TO HIS CAUSE

Babyn Yar wasn't bombed. But Ukraine's Zelensky finds a useful tool to rally Jews to his cause.
By Cnaan Liphshiz
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
March 3, 2022

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's direct and emotional appeal to the world's Jews on Wednesday marked something of a departure for him.

Before and during Russia's war on his country, Zelensky had spoken plainly to civilians on both sides of the conflict, but he hadn't directly addressed those outside the country. And for his entire career, he has not been outspoken about his Jewish identity.

So when he and his aides repeatedly drew attention to what they said was happening to sites of Jewish significance this week, some saw a strategic decision at a perilous time for Ukraine.

"He's using the Jewish angle -- and it's absolutely kosher," Roman Bronfman, a Ukraine-born former Israeli lawmaker and the author of a book on the immigration of Russian-speaking Jews to Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Zelensky has never hidden his Jewish identity, but he has never called attention to it, either. At a ceremony last year in Babyn Yar, the site near Kyiv of a massacre of Jews during the Holocaust, Zelensky did not mention the fact that some of his relatives were murdered there, delivering a speech that could have come from any of his non-Jewish predecessors.

During his presidential campaign, Zelensky, a comedian turned politician, dismissed the subject of his Jewish identity with typical self-deprecating humor.

In a 2019 interview with Bernard-Henri Levy, a French-Jewish philosopher, Zelensky declined to explore his Jewish identity at any length, responding to a question about it by saying: "The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults."

And yet his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times Wednesday whose second sentence emphasized that Ukraine is "a country that has a Jewish president." That op-ed was published shortly after Zelensky's videotaped appeal, which his office translated into English and Hebrew and distributed via multiple social media channels.

"On the first day of the war, Uman was brutally bombed where hundreds of thousands of Jews come every year to pray," he said in the appeal, referring to the Hasidic pilgrimage site in central Ukraine. "Then Babyn Yar, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed

"And now," he continued, "addressing all the Jews of the world: Don't you see why this is happening? That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent right now. Nazism is born in silence."

Zelensky's comments were not totally precise. Ukraine is indeed under heavy and unprovoked attack by Russian forces, and civilian sites are increasingly being targeted. But the bomb that fell in Uman, a city of 80,000 with about 200 year-round Jewish residents, landed miles from the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which draws tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims each year.

And despite reports, the rocket that damaged the Kyiv TV tower did not in fact harm the Babyn Yar memorial, located in an adjacent area, according to a veteran Israeli journalist, Ron Ben Yishai, who toured the site Wednesday and saw no signs of damage. "Thank God it's not damaged," Natan Sharansky, who chairs the memorial site's advisory board, told the Forward about the synagogue and memorial site at Babyn Yar.

In both cases, Zelensky cited numbers of Jews involved that are much higher than accepted estimates.

In the fog of war, errors are easy to make. (Television cameras captured the moment that an aide told Zelensky that Babyn Yar was under assault.) Misinformation can also be a powerful tool for leaders seeking to shape popular opinion -- something that Russian President Vladimir Putin leverages regularly when trying to appeal to Jewish sentiment. Yermak's New York Times piece was a rebuttal of the Russian president's baseless claim that he is waging a "denazification" campaign in Ukraine.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JTA that emphasizing Jewish issues and ideas serves Zelensky well given the Kremlin's narrative.

"When you put forth such an egregious and baseless accusation, unfortunately because of Russian propaganda there are people who believe it, you need to counter that," Borshchevskaya said. "I don't think there's anything insincere about his efforts, but the world needs to know that that you have a dictator in the Kremlin accusing a Jewish person of being a Nazi."

Bronfman said focusing on the details of Zelensky's comments may distract from more important issues.

Babyn Yar was not directly hit, Bronfman said. "But isn't it bad enough that it's in danger of being hit because of Russian bombs? Zelensky and his people are using this quite rightly to spur world Jewry to speak out," he said.

Zelensky's first comments on Babyn Yar, posted late Tuesday on social media, were quickly followed by a stream of condemnations by Jewish groups and organizations that accepted as fact the suggestion that the Russian bombing resulted in damage to the mass graves or the museum built on the site.

It's also entirely possible, Bronfman said, that Zelensky is hoping to unlock funds and international support by Jewish groups widely perceived as influential.

"That's also perfectly legitimate," Bronfman said.

Many of those groups have already directed their considerable fundraising and logistical expertise toward supporting Ukrainian Jews, who number anywhere between 43,000 and more than 300,000, according to various estimates.

But it's clear that Zelensky feels a crucial aspect of Jewish support, that of Israel, is lacking. After his second call with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday, Zelensky noted on social media that the pair had spoken -- but unlike after his calls with other world leaders, he did not thank Bennett for his support or even mention the contents of their conversation.

On Thursday, Zelensky went further, telling reporters at a bunker press conference, "I don't feel the Israeli prime minister has wrapped himself in the Ukrainian flag" -- the show of support that many individual Israelis and others have made.

The Israeli government, wary of Russia's overweening influence and presence in the Middle East, has been slow to robustly condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, although it joined the United States in a U.N. General Assembly condemnation on Wednesday. Israel also reportedly has declined to share antimissile systems with Ukraine. Bennett spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin within hours of his conversation with Zelensky Wednesday.

It is weapons, Zelensky has emphasized since the war's beginning, that his country needs to battle the Russian invaders.

Zelensky has declined to leave Ukraine even as Putin openly declared that he is working to oust him from power. His situation, and his country's, means that rhetoric used to galvanize needed aid are fair game, Bronfman said.

"Ukraine is in a desperate state. Zelensky is in a worrisome state," Bronfman said. "When he appeals to the Jewish world for help, that's only natural. And the Jewish world should listen."

 

THE WAR IN UKRAINE IS NOT ABOUT PUTIN'S MENTAL HEALTH

The war in Ukraine is not about Putin's mental health
Armchair psychology tells us nothing about the Russian invasion.
By Joanna Williams
Spiked Online
March 1, 2022

https://www.spiked-online.com/2022/03/01/the-war-in-ukraine-is-not-about-putins-mental-health/

When it comes to making sense of what is happening in Ukraine, there's one thing almost everyone seems to agree on: Vladimir Putin has gone mad. Boris Johnson got the ball rolling when he announced last week in the House of Commons that Putin was showing an 'illogical and irrational frame of mind'. The next day, UK defence secretary Ben Wallace upped the ante and said Putin had 'gone full tonto'. Former NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen joined in, saying the Russian president may have 'gone crazy' and seemed 'unhinged' in his televised appearances. Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice added for good measure: 'I am sure he's not wholly rational. He's a megalomaniac. And you have to deal with the five per cent chance that he might in fact be delusional.'

Commentators have been quick to join in with the armchair psychiatry. Russia is being led by 'Vlad the Mad', according to Douglas Murray in the New York Post. Putin's a 'mad bastard', echoed Tony Parsons in the Sun. Forget the fog of war, some even suggest Putin is suffering from the 'brain fog' associated with Long Covid. Or that extended periods of Covid isolation may have fuelled 'paranoia' and a 'bunker mentality'. Such long-distance diagnoses reveal far more about the affectations of the political class than they do about Putin's state of mind.

One one level, it is easy to see why people have rushed to diagnose Putin as mad. At a quick glance, his decision to invade Ukraine appears irrational. His failure to appreciate the resistance Russian forces would face seems to be a foolish misjudgment from a leader the Western media have long painted as a master-tactician. It's hard to see Putin's declaration that Russia's nuclear weapons are to be put on high alert as anything other than reckless and unhinged. And then there are the pictures of Putin sitting beside a row of 1980s-style telephones or heading up bizarrely long tables. But describing his apparent Covid-paranoia as mad would be far more convincing were it not coming from the same people who, just a fortnight ago, assumed wearing a mask in an empty train carriage was a totally rational act.

That Putin is being labelled as mentally ill by Western politicians is unlikely to bother the Russian president himself, but it does cause problems for the rest of us. It's not just that cod psychology is lazy -- it also gets in the way of a detailed analysis of the context that led up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It means we can safely ignore everything that has happened over the past 30 years, that we need not trouble ourselves thinking about the role of NATO, or shifting global power balances. It says that everything was well with the world until suddenly, out of the blue, Putin went mad.

Worse still, the 'Vlad the mad' narrative prompts simplistic conclusions. If only Putin's mother had hugged him when he was a little boy, declared Hollywood starlet AnnaLynne McCord, echoing every fashionable parenting guru of the past three decades. Meanwhile, the decision by the World Taekwondo Federation to strip Putin of his honorary ninth dan black belt has been praised for hitting him 'where it hurts most: his ego? -- because clearly, if we could just declare war on toxic masculinity then there would be no threat to Ukraine.

The drive to see Russia's invasion of Ukraine through the prism of Putin's alleged mental-health problems conforms all too neatly to the Western assumption that everyone is emotionally fragile and all major life events are potentially psychologically damaging. Since the war in Ukraine began, there have been countless articles advising people thousands of miles from Kyiv how to protect their mental health in the face of this stressful news cycle. Plus, there are the celebrities -- brilliantly skewered by spiked columnist Julie Burchill -- who are convinced the war in Ukraine is all about them.

But there is another narrative at play, too. Putin is by no means the first world leader to be written off as mad. In January 2018, over 70 mental-health professionals wrote to Donald Trump's physician demanding he conduct a cognitive examination of the then president amid ongoing concerns that Trump may have been suffering from dementia. In the UK, Brexit voters were branded not just thick but 'lizard-brained', too. Go back even further and we find long-standing attempts to put the blame for the whole of the Second World War on Hitler's rage at being rejected by the art establishment or his inferiority complex that resulted from paternal beatings. Apparently there is no political problem too complex or global crisis too big it can't be reduced to the level of individual trauma.

Tempting though it is, we must avoid writing Putin off as simply deranged, deluded and irrational. We need to face the far more complex geopolitical issues that have shaped his recent actions. Even seemingly irrational acts take place within a particular context. Some argue that grappling with this context lets Putin off the hook for the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. Let's put the complex international situation to one side and get stuck into armchair psychiatry instead, seems to be the message. But declaring Putin to be mad also absolves him of responsibility for his actions. And, in the process, it takes the spotlight off the rest of the Russian ruling elite and the actions of Western governments, too.

 

PUTIN SPEAKS

Tom Gross adds:

For those interested, here is a clip from of Putin himself answering questions from a correspondent from Britain's Sky News and you can judge for yourself whether he is insane:

https://youtu.be/MOkl2XgZlw0

 

FACT AND MYTHMAKING BLEND IN UKRAINE'S INFORMATION WAR

Fact and Mythmaking Blend in Ukraine's Information War
By Stuart A. Thompson and Davey Alba
New York Times
March 4, 2022

Just days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a pilot with a mysterious nickname was quickly becoming the conflict's first wartime hero. Named the Ghost of Kyiv, the ace fighter had apparently single-handedly shot down several Russian fighter jets.

The story was shared by the official Ukraine Twitter account Feb. 27 in a thrilling montage video set to thumping music, showing the fighter swooping through the Ukrainian skies as enemy planes exploded around him. The Security Service of Ukraine, the country's main security agency, also relayed the tale on its official Telegram channel, which has over 700,000 subscribers.

The story of a single pilot beating the superior Russian air force found wide appeal online, thanks to the official Ukraine accounts and many others. Videos of the so-called Ghost of Kyiv had more than 9.3 million views on Twitter, and the pilot was mentioned in thousands of Facebook groups reaching up to 717 million followers. On YouTube, videos promoting the Ukrainian fighter collected 6.5 million views, while TikTok videos with the hashtag #ghostofkyiv reached 200 million views.

While there are reports of some Russian planes getting destroyed in combat, there is no information linking them to a single Ukrainian pilot. One of the first videos that went viral, which was included in the montage shared by the official Ukraine Twitter account, was actually a computer rendering from a combat flight simulator originally uploaded by a YouTube user with just 3,000 subscribers. And a photo supposedly confirming the fighter's existence, shared by a former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, was from a 2019 Twitter post by the Ukrainian defense ministry.

When fact-checking website Snopes published an article debunking the video, some social media users pushed back.

"Why can't we just let people believe some things?" one Twitter user replied. "If the Russians believe it, it brings fear. If the Ukrainians believe it, it gives them hope."

In the information war over the invasion of Ukraine, some of the country's official accounts have pushed stories with questionable veracity, spreading anecdotes, gripping on-the-ground accounts and even some unverified information that was later proved false, in a rapid jumble of fact and myth.

The claims by Ukraine do not compare to the falsehoods being spread by Russia, like laying the groundwork for a "false flag" operation in the lead-up to the invasion, which the Biden administration sought to derail. As the invasion neared, Russia falsely claimed that it was responding to Ukrainian aggression and liberating citizens from fascists and neo-Nazis. And since the assault began, Russia made baseless claims that Ukrainians had indiscriminately bombed hospitals and killed civilians.

Instead, Ukraine's online propaganda is largely focused on its heroes and martyrs, characters that help dramatize tales of Ukrainian fortitude and Russian aggression.

But the Ukrainian claims on social media have also raised thorny questions about how false and unproven content should be handled during war -- when lives are at stake and a Western ally is fighting for its survival against a powerful invading force.

"Ukraine is involved in pretty classic propaganda," said Laura Edelson, a computer scientist studying misinformation at New York University. "They are telling stories that support their narrative. Sometimes false information is making its way in there, too, and more of it is getting through because of the overall environment."

Anecdotes detailing Ukrainian bravery or Russian brutality are crucial to the country's war plan, according to experts, and they are part of established war doctrine that values winning not just individual skirmishes but also the hearts and minds of citizens and international observers.

That is especially important during this conflict, as Ukrainians try to keep morale high among the fighters and marshal global support for their cause.

"If Ukraine had no messages of the righteousness of its cause, the popularity of its cause, the valor of its heroes, the suffering of its populace, then it would lose," said Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington. "Not just the information war, but it would lose the overall war."

In previous wars, combatants would try to sabotage enemy communication and limit the spread of wartime propaganda, even cutting physical communication lines like telegraph cables. But there are fewer such cables in the internet age, so in addition to downing communication towers and disrupting pockets of internet access, the modern strategy also involves flooding the internet with viral messages that drown out opposing narratives.

That digital battle moved at startling speed, experts noted, using an array of social media accounts, official websites and news conferences streamed online to spread Ukraine's message.

"You have to have the message that goes the most viral," Singer said.

That was the case with another report from Ukraine involving a remarkable confrontation on Snake Island, an outpost in the Black Sea. According to an audio recording released by Pravda, a Ukrainian newspaper, and later verified by Ukraine officials, 13 border guards were offered a frightening ultimatum by an advancing Russian military unit: surrender or face an attack. The Ukrainians responded instead with an expletive, before apparently being killed.

Audio of the exchange went viral on social media, and the clip posted Feb. 24 by Pravda received more than 3.5 million views on YouTube. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine personally announced the deaths in a video, saying they would each be awarded the title Hero of Ukraine.

But just days later, Ukrainian officials confirmed in a Facebook post that the men were still alive, taken prisoner by Russian forces.

Social media has become the main conduit for pushing the information, verified or not, giving tech companies a role in the information war too. The fake Ghost of Kyiv video, for instance, was flagged as "out of context" by Twitter, but the montage posted to Ukraine's official Twitter account received no such flag. The false photo posted by Poroshenko, the former Ukrainian president, also had no flag.

While Twitter monitors its service for harmful content, including manipulated or mislabeled videos, it said that tweets simply mentioning the Ghost of Kyiv do not violate its rules.

"When we identify content and accounts that violate the Twitter Rules, we'll take enforcement action," the company said.

In exercising discretion over how unverified or false content is moderated, social media companies have decided to "pick a side," according to Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former head of security at Facebook.

"I think this demonstrates the limits of 'fact-checking' in a fast-moving battle with real lives at stake," Stamos said. He added that technology platforms never created rules against misinformation overall, instead targeting specific behaviors, actors and content.

That leaves the truth behind some wartime narratives, like an apparent assassination plot against Zelenskyy or simply the number of troops killed in battle, fairly elusive, even as official accounts and news media share the information.

Those narratives have continued as the war marches on, revealing the contours of an information war aimed not just at Western audiences but also Russian citizens. At the United Nations on Monday, the Ukrainian ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, shared a series of text messages that he said were retrieved from the phone of dead Russian soldier.

"Mama, I'm in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I'm afraid," the Russian soldier apparently wrote, according to Kyslytsya's account, which he read in Russian. The tale seemed to evoke a narrative advanced by officials and shared extensively on social media that Russian soldiers are poorly trained, too young and don't want to be fighting their Ukrainian neighbors. "We are bombing all of the cities together, even targeting civilians."

The story, whether true or not, appears tailor-made for Russian civilians -- particularly parents fretting over the fate of their enlisted children, experts said.

"This is an age-old tactic that the Ukrainians are trying to use, and that is to draw the attention of the mothers and the families in Russia away from the more grandiose aims for war, onto, instead, the human costs of war," said Ian Garner, a historian focusing on Russia who has followed Russian-language propaganda during the conflict. "We know that this is really effective."

Official Ukrainian accounts have also uploaded dozens of videos purportedly showing Russian prisoners of war, some with bloody bandages covering their arms or face. In the videos, the prisoners are heard denouncing the invasion. The videos may raise questions about whether Ukraine is violating the Geneva Conventions, which has rules about sharing images of war prisoners.

Russia has also engaged in its own form of mythmaking, but experts say it has been far less effective. Rather than targeting international observers with emotional appeals, Russia has focused on swaying its own population to build support for the battle, according to Garner.

Since Russian state media is still calling the conflict a "special military operation" and not a war -- in line with the description used by President Vladimir Putin of Russia -- state broadcasters are left "trying to talk about a war that is apparently not happening," Garner said.

The Russian government "can't play to its strongest narratives of individual sacrifice," he added, instead relying on stories of Ukrainians bombing hospitals and civilians, providing no evidence.

Ukraine's efforts to amplify its own messages also leave little room for Russia to dominate the conversation, according to Singer, the strategist from New America.

"A key to information warfare in the age of social media is to recognize that the audience is both target of and participant in it," Singer said. He added that social media users were "hopefully sharing out those messages, which makes them combatants of a sort as well."

 

WASHINGTON'S NEWEST WORRY: THE DANGERS OF CORNERING PUTIN

Washington's Newest Worry: The Dangers of Cornering Putin
By David E. Sanger
The New York Times
March 5, 2022

WASHINGTON -- Senior White House officials designing the strategy to confront Russia have begun quietly debating a new concern: that the avalanche of sanctions directed at Moscow, which has gained speed faster than they imagined, is cornering President Vladimir Putin and may prompt him to lash out, perhaps expanding the conflict beyond Ukraine.

In Situation Room meetings in recent days, the issue has come up repeatedly, according to three officials. Putin's tendency, U.S. intelligence officials have told the White House and Congress, is to double down when he feels trapped by his own overreach. So they have described a series of possible reactions, ranging from indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities to compensate for the early mistakes made by his invading force, to cyberattacks directed at the U.S. financial system, to more nuclear threats and perhaps moves to take the war beyond Ukraine's borders.

The debate over Putin's next moves is linked to an urgent reexamination by intelligence agencies of the Russian leader's mental state, and whether his ambitions and appetite for risk have been altered by two years of COVID-19 isolation.

Those concerns accelerated after Putin's order Sunday to place the country's strategic nuclear weapons on a "combat ready" alert to respond to the West's "aggressive comments." (In the ensuing days, however, national security officials say they have seen little evidence on the ground that Russia's nuclear forces have actually moved to a different state of readiness.)

It was a sign of the depth of U.S. concern that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Wednesday that he was canceling a previously scheduled Minuteman nuclear missile test to avoid escalating direct challenges to Moscow or giving Putin an excuse to once again invoke the power of the country's nuclear arsenal.

"We did not take this decision lightly, but instead, to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday. "We recognize at this moment of tension how critical it is that both the United States and Russia bear in mind the risk of miscalculation, and take steps to reduce those risks."

Nonetheless, Putin's reaction to the initial wave of sanctions has provoked a range of concerns that one senior official called the "Cornered Putin Problem." Those concerns center on a series of recent announcements: the pullout of oil companies like Exxon and Shell from developing Russia's oil fields, the moves against Russia's central bank that sent the ruble plunging, and Germany's surprise announcement that it would drop its ban on sending lethal weapons to Ukrainian forces and ramp up its defense spending.

But beyond canceling the missile test, there is no evidence that the United States is considering steps to reduce tensions, and a senior official said there was no interest in backing off sanctions.

"Quite the contrary,'' said the official, who, like other U.S. officials interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to discuss the internal debates among Biden's advisers.

In fact, President Joe Biden announced expanded sanctions Thursday, aimed at Russia's oligarch class. Many of those named -- including Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesperson and one of his close advisers -- rank among his most influential defenders and the beneficiaries of the system he has created.

Biden, reading a statement and taking no questions, said the sanctions have had "a profound impact already."

A few hours after he spoke, S&P dropped Russia's credit rating to CCC-, the credit rating agency said in a statement. That is far below the junk bond levels Russia was ranked at a few days after the invasion and just two notches above a warning that the country was going into default.

It suggested that Putin's effort to "sanctions-proof" his economy had largely failed. And at least for now, there is no discernible off-ramp for the Russian leader short of declaring a cease-fire or pulling back his forces -- steps he has so far shown no interest in taking.

At a news briefing at the White House on Thursday afternoon, press secretary Jen Psaki said that she knew of no efforts to show Putin a way out. "I think right in this moment, they are marching toward Kyiv with a convoy and continuing to take reportedly barbaric steps against the people of Ukraine. So now is not the moment where we are offering options for reducing sanctions."

Yet a senior State Department official, asked about the debates inside the administration on the risks ahead, said there were nuances in the administration's approach that point to possible outs for the Russian leader.

Biden's policy, the official said, was not one of seeking regime change in Russia. The idea, he said, was to influence Putin's actions, not his grip on power. And the sanctions, the official noted, were designed not as a punishment, but as leverage to end the war. They will escalate if Putin escalates, the official said. But the administration would calibrate its sanctions, and perhaps reduce them, if Putin begins to de-escalate.

And the official said that because Putin has now exerted such control over Russian media, closing down the last vestiges of independent news organizations, he could spin some kind of de-escalation into a victory.

Yet that hope collides with the assessments of Putin's instincts, many of which are based on open, unclassified observations.

CIA Director William Burns was an early advocate of the view that the Russian leader planned to invade and was not massing troops around Ukraine simply to gain leverage in some kind of bargaining game.

"I would never underestimate President Putin's risk appetite on Ukraine," Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, who has dealt with Putin for more than two decades, said in December.

Putin's views on Ukraine are fiercely held. He seems unlikely to accept any result that does not achieve his goal of bringing Ukraine closer to the Russian fold. And, especially after the Russian military's poor performance in the first week of the war, he may be concerned that any whiff of failure could weaken his hold on power.

Putin's strategy in coming weeks, some other U.S. officials have warned in closed meetings since the crisis accelerated, could be to redirect the conflict toward Washington, hoping to distract from the Russian forces' attacks on civilians in Ukraine and rouse a nationalistic response to the actions of a longtime adversary.

If Putin wants to strike at the U.S. financial system, as Biden has struck at his, he has only one significant pathway in: his well-trained army of hackers and an adjacent group of criminal ransomware operators, some of whom have publicly pledged to help him in his battle.

Tatyana Bolton, the policy director for cybersecurity and emerging threats at the R Street Institute, expressed confidence Thursday that the financial industry was ready.

"The JPMorgans of the world spend more on cybersecurity than many government agencies,'' said Bolton, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security whose family emigrated from Russia.

But she was concerned about the possibility that Putin would finally activate "pre-positioned malware in the energy sector as a means of getting back at the United States."

Members of Congress have also raised concerns that Putin could unleash Moscow's network of criminal hackers, who have conducted ransomware attacks that have shut down hospitals, meat processing plants and the Colonial Pipeline network that carried nearly half of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel on the East Coast.

"If the situation escalates further, I think we are going to see Russian cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure," said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was co-chair of an influential cyberspace commission.

Another possibility is that Putin will threaten to push farther into Moldova or Georgia, which, like Ukraine, are not members of NATO -- and thus territory that the U.S. and NATO forces would not enter. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making Moldova one of his stops on a reassurance tour that began Thursday.

There are larger worries, involving potential nuclear threats. On Sunday, as the fighting accelerated, Belarus passed a referendum that amended its constitution to allow for nuclear weapons to be based, once again, on its territory. U.S. officials are expecting that President Alexander Lukashenko may well ask Putin to place tactical weapons in his country, where they would be closer to European capitals. And Putin has shown, twice this week, that he is ready to remind the world of the powers of his arsenal.

But the next move for Putin is likely to further intensify his operations in Ukraine, which would almost certainly result in more civilian casualties and destruction.

"It wasn't a cakewalk for Putin, and now he has no choice but to double down," said Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official. "This is what autocrats do. You cannot walk away or you look weak."

 

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