KRAKOW, Poland — Fresh from its triumph over the last armed Ukrainian resistance in the devastated city of Mariupol, Russia appeared to be laying the groundwork Thursday for annexing swaths of southeast Ukraine, described by a high-ranking Kremlin official as having a “worthy place in our Russian family.’’
The official, Marat Khusnullin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for infrastructure, toured the region this week and outlined plans to take full control of vital infrastructure, including Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, as Russia fortified its defensive positions there and exerted its authority over the local population.
“I came here to provide maximum opportunities for integration,” Mr. Khusnullin was quoted by Russian news media as saying.
In a further sign that Moscow was preparing to push for the Russification of the region — the way it has in Crimea since seizing it from Ukraine in 2014 — Russian officials have already moved to introduce the ruble currency, install proxy politicians in local governments, impose new school curriculums, reroute internet servers through Russia and cut the population off from Ukrainian broadcasts.
Mr. Khusnullin said Russia even intended to charge Ukraine for electricity generated by the Ukrainian nuclear plant that Russian forces commandeered in the early weeks of the invasion — a plan that Ukraine described as extortion.
Russia’s moves came as the United States sought to further escalate pressure on the Kremlin. President Biden vowed to help gain speedy approval of applications to join NATO by formerly neutral Finland and Sweden, as he welcomed the leaders of those countries to the White House and as U.S. officials expressed confidence that they could satisfy Turkey’s objections to Finnish and Swedish membership. And the Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine that Mr. Biden was set to sign into law.
Even as the Russian authorities projected control over a Ukrainian region that is culturally close to Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin appeared to be punishing military subordinates for blunders in the three-month-old invasion.
A report by Britain’s defense intelligence agency suggested the Kremlin was conducting a purge of senior commanders deemed responsible for the failures of Russia’s initial strategy to seize much more Ukraine territory, including the capital, Kyiv, and second-largest city, Kharkiv. The report raised the question of whether Mr. Putin retained faith in his chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov.
The Russians have said nothing about any changes in the military leadership.
Russia’s new, narrower strategy of focusing on Ukraine’s east has proved more successful than its initially greater aims, even as its forces have retreated in the northeast and struggled to gain ground in the eastern Donbas region.
Following the longest battle of the war, Russian soldiers completed their capture of Mariupol on Tuesday after having seized control of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, the last redoubt of Ukrainian defenders. More than 700 fighters from the Azov battalion, die-hards who had made a final stand against the Russians from the plant, surrendered between Wednesday and Thursday, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, bringing the total number of captives to 1,730.
The Kremlin has been using the mass surrender for propaganda purposes, describing its captives as terrorists and Nazi war criminals, and framing the conquest of Mariupol as a turning point in the conflict.
Although much of Mariupol is ruined, the capture of the port city is expected to bring Russia concrete benefits. It will complete a long-sought land bridge between the Russian-controlled Crimean peninsula to the south and the adjoining region known as Donbas, where pro-Russian separatists have battled Ukrainian forces since the Crimea annexation.
With Mariupol captured, Russian troops are now freed to help entrench Russia’s authority over the rest of the eastern region — well short of Moscow’s initial push to control all of Ukraine, but strong leverage in any future peace negotiations.
The fighting has settled into a stalemate along most of the front.
Stiff Ukrainian resistance is forcing Russian troops to fight in smaller formations and seek more limited objectives elsewhere in the Donbas region, a senior Pentagon official said on Thursday.
“They’re going after smaller objectives,” the senior official said of the Russian goals, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details of American defense intelligence work. “And sometimes those objectives are only maintained for a short period of time before the Ukrainians take them back. They’re just being more modest in what they’re trying to go after.”
The shift in Russian tactics reflects not only the resilient Ukrainian defense, but also the nagging command, logistics and morale problems that continued to bedevil Russian commanders, especially in the hotly contested Donbas, the official said.
The southern region under Russian control covers a vast expanse that includes Ukraine’s agricultural heartland and several key ports. Along with Russia’s naval dominion in the Black Sea, annexation would tighten Moscow’s stranglehold on the Ukrainian economy and solidify its blockade of Ukraine’s southern coast.
In another possible sign of steps to entrench Russia’s control, its troops closed checkpoints on Thursday for civilians crossing between Russian-occupied zones and Ukrainian controlled areas in two regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, according to the Ukrainian military and local authorities.
At one checkpoint, near the town of Vasilyevka, a line of cars transporting mostly women and children seeking to evacuate Russian-held areas stretched through farm fields. Ukrainian officials estimated more than 1,000 cars waited at the crossing, said Zlata Nekrasova, the deputy governor of the Ukrainian regional government in Zaporizhzhia.
The Ukrainians have accused Russia of forcibly deporting thousands to Russia and witnesses have described increasingly repressive efforts to enforce Russian rule.
The Kremlin has sought to portray its actions as reflecting popular will. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, appeared to play down the significance of Mr. Khusnullin’s statements signaling annexation, saying only locals could decide.
But in a move that some analysts regarded as reflecting confusion within the Russian leadership about how to secure Ukrainian areas seized by Russia, a group of lawmakers on Thursday submitted a bill to the State Duma that would allow Mr. Putin to establish “temporary administrations on territories where Russia’s army conducts military operations.”
Mr. Khusnullin said that Russia would soon begin charging Ukraine for electricity from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which Russia has controlled since early March. When fully operational, the plant can produce enough energy for four million homes.
Ukraine’s energy provider, NPC Ukrenergo, which called Mr. Khusnullin’s statement nuclear blackmail, said the real aim was to give Russia electricity leverage over Ukraine and the rest of Europe. It noted that the plant was part of the Ukrainian power grid and unequipped to deliver power to Russia.
Moscow’s announcements were also part of a propaganda campaign aimed at conveying control over areas where its grip is less solid. Military analysts have said Russia’s forces could still face Ukrainian uprisings and counteroffensives.
Russia’s invasion in February, spearheaded by a rapid advance of tanks and helicopters, ultimately led to many Russian casualties, including some senior generals on the battlefield. The finger-pointing has started, Britain’s defense intelligence agency said in its Thursday report.
It said the commander of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, Lt. Gen. Serhiy Kisel, had been suspended for failure to capture Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces have not only counterattacked but driven the invaders back toward the Russian border 40 miles away.
The British agency also reported that the commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Vice Adm. Igor Osipov, had likely been suspended following the April sinking of the fleet’s flagship, the cruiser Moskva. Asked about the report, a senior Pentagon went further, saying the commander had been dismissed.
General Gerasimov, Russia’s highest ranking uniformed officer, “likely remains in post but it is unclear whether he retains the confidence” of Mr. Putin, the British report said.
But in a signal that General Gerasimov remained in good standing, he spoke on Thursday by phone with Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon said. It was their first call since the invasion.
In the port city of Kherson, in the south near the border with Crimea, Mr. Khusnullin inspected infrastructure, including the port, a cargo railway station and a factory.
“We will live and work together,” he said, adding that Russia had already allocated funds to restore the city’s roads.
“We will now eat tomatoes and tomato paste more often in Russia thanks to the work of Kherson’s agricultural producers,” Mr. Khusnullin said, alluding to Kherson’s longtime role as a breadbasket and a global exporter.
But even as he spoke, Ukrainian officials said a convoy of civilian cars trying to flee the region came under fire from Russian soldiers. Roughly half of the million people who once lived in the region have fled, with witnesses who escaped offering harrowing stories of Russian repression.
In Kyiv, a committee in Ukraine’s Parliament accused Russia of having robbed Kherson of 400,000 tons of grain, sending it to Russia and creating conditions that “may lead to famine in the occupied territories.”
A Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s ports is preventing Ukraine from exporting millions more tons, putting tens of millions of people worldwide at risk of hunger and famine, the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said Thursday at a U.N. conference on food security.
Marc Santora reported from Krakow, Poland, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Norimitsu Onishi from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Matthew Mpoke Bigg from Krakow, Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger from Washington, Valerie Hopkins and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Shashank Bengali from London, Anton Troianovski from Brussels and Rick Gladstone from New York.
POKROVSK, Ukraine — Russia’s nearly three-month-old invasion of neighboring Ukraine has been punctuated by flawed planning, poor intelligence, barbarity and wanton destruction. But obscured in the daily fighting is the geographic reality that Russia has made gains on the ground.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that its forces in eastern Ukraine had advanced to the border between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Russian-speaking provinces where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine’s army for eight years.
The ministry’s assertion, if confirmed, strengthens the prospect that Russia could soon gain complete control over the region, known as the Donbas, compared with just a third of it before the Feb. 24 invasion.
That is a far cry from what appeared to be the grand ambitions of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when he launched the invasion: quick and easy seizure of vast swaths of Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, the overthrow of a hostile government and a replacement with unquestioned fealty that would ensure Ukraine’s subservience.
Nonetheless, the Donbas seizure, combined with the Russian invasion’s early success in seizing parts of southern Ukraine adjoining the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, gives the Kremlin enormous leverage in any future negotiation to halt the conflict.
And the Russians enjoy the added advantage of naval dominance in the Black Sea, the only maritime route for Ukrainian trade, which they have paralyzed with an embargo that could eventually starve Ukraine economically and is already contributing to a global grain shortage.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, warned of a “prolonged conflict” in Ukraine as Russia seeks expansive territorial gains beyond the Donbas region, including the creation of a land bridge across Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
But Ms. Haines cautioned that Mr. Putin would struggle to achieve those gains without a large-scale mobilization or draft, which he appears reluctant to order for now. As Mr. Putin’s territorial ambitions conflict with the limited capabilities of his military, Ms. Haines said that the war could enter “a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory” over the next few months, increasing the likelihood of Mr. Putin issuing direct threats to use nuclear weapons.
For the last several weeks, Ukrainian and Russian troops have been engaged in a grueling attrition, often fighting fiercely over small areas, as one village falls into Russian hands on one day only to be retaken by the Ukrainians a few days later.
The Ukrainians are increasingly dependent on an infusion of Western military and humanitarian aid, much of it from the United States, where the House voted Tuesday evening to approve a nearly $40 billion emergency package.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here,” said Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, who testified alongside Ms. Haines.
Still, Russia has all but achieved one of its primary objectives: seizing a land bridge connecting Russian territory to the Crimean peninsula.
When Mr. Putin ordered the invasion, some of his military’s most skilled fighters poured out of Crimea and southern Russia, quickly seizing a ribbon of Ukrainian territory along the Sea of Azov. The last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in this area, at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, has been whittled to a few hundred hungry troops now confined mostly to bunkers.
But efforts by Russian forces to expand and fortify the land bridge have been complicated by Ukrainian forces deployed along an east-west front that undulates through sprawling fields of wheat and occasionally engulfs villages and towns.
Though Russian artillery and rockets have wreaked havoc in residential areas, flattening houses and terrorizing locals, the Russian military has not committed enough forces to move the line significantly or threaten the major industrial hub of Zaporizhzhia, the largest city near the frontline, Col. Oleg Goncharuk, the commander of the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, said in an interview last month.
“They will try to block our forces from moving forward and they are trying to solidify their positions,” said Colonel Goncharuk, whose forces are arrayed along the southeast front. “But we don’t know their orders or what their ambitions are.”
It is in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk where fighting is the fiercest.
At the main hospital in Kramatorsk, a city in Donetsk, ambulances stream in day and night, carrying soldiers wounded at the front, who describe being pinned down by near constant shelling.
About 80 percent of the patients are wounded by explosives such as mines and artillery shells, said Capt. Eduard Antonovskyy, the deputy commander of the medical unit at the hospital. Because of this, he said, very few patients have serious injuries. Either you’re far enough from an explosion to survive or you aren’t, he said.
“We either get moderate injuries or deaths,” Captain Antonovskyy said.
Russian forces now control about 80 percent of Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials, and have concentrated their efforts on a pocket of Ukrainian-held territory with Kramatorsk at its center.
All around the city, the booms of distant fighting can be heard at all hours and heavy smoke hangs like a morning fog. Almost daily, Russian forces launch rocket attacks and airstrikes on the city itself, but the most punishing violence is reserved for those places in range of Russian artillery.
About 62 miles northeast of Kramatorsk is Severodonetsk, where Russian artillery, parked about five or six miles outside the city, rarely relents, making it difficult for the 15,000 or so residents who remain to venture above ground.
Oleg Grigorov, the police chief in the Luhansk region, compared the violence to the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, when Soviet forces turned the tide against the Nazis, but only after having suffered tremendous losses.
“It never ends. At all,” Mr. Grigorov said. “Whole neighborhoods are destroyed. For days, for weeks, they have been shelling. They are intentionally annihilating our infrastructure and the civilian population.”
Mr. Grigorov said about 200 of his officers remained in the city, which has lost electricity and water. Their primary task is delivering food to people sheltering in their basements and burying the dead.
Russia’s Black Sea blockade of Ukraine has not diminished the Kremlin’s desire to gain control of Odesa, the most important Ukrainian port, which has been subjected to several aerial attacks. In the latest, Russian forces fired seven missiles, striking a shopping mall and a consumer goods warehouse and killing at least one person and wounding several more, Ukrainian officials said.
The strike came only hours after the European Council president, Charles Michel, had visited Odesa, where he was forced to take cover in a bomb shelter because of another attack.
Mr. Michel, who met with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal of Ukraine, criticized Russia for strangling Ukrainian grain exports that feed people around the world.
“I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export,” Mr. Michel said in a statement. “This badly needed food is stranded because of the Russian war and blockade of Black Sea ports, causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine urged the international community to pressure Russia to lift the blockade.
“For the first time in decades there is no usual movement of the merchant fleet, no usual port functioning in Odesa,” he said in an overnight address. “Probably, this has never happened in Odesa since World War II.”
Ukraine’s economy is expected to shrink 30 percent this year, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said on Tuesday, worsening its forecast from just two months ago, when it predicted a 20 percent shrinkage.
The war has “put Ukraine’s economy under enormous stress, with the heavy devastation of infrastructure and production capacities,” the bank said in an economic update.
It estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of Ukrainian businesses have shut down, 10 percent of the population has fled the country and a further 15 percent is displaced internally.
The bank also forecast that Russia’s economy would shrink by 10 percent this year and stagnate next year, with a bleak outlook unless a peace agreement leads to the relaxing of Western sanctions.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Pokrovsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Julian E. Barnes and Emily Cochrane from Washington, and Eshe Nelson and Cora Engelbrecht from London.
With the Russian military still struggling, Western officials and Ukraine’s traumatized residents are looking with increased alarm to Russia’s Victory Day holiday on May 9 — a celebration of the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany — fearing that President Vladimir V. Putin may exploit it as a grandiose stage to intensify attacks and mobilize his citizenry for all-out war.
While Russia has inflicted death and destruction across Ukraine and made some progress in the east and the south over the past 10 weeks, stiff Ukrainian resistance, heavy weapons supplied by the West and Russian military incompetence have denied Mr. Putin the swift victory he originally appeared to have anticipated, including the initial goal of decapitating the government in Kyiv.
Now, however, with Russia about to be smacked with a European Union oil embargo, and with Victory Day just five days away, Mr. Putin may see the need to jolt the West with a new escalation. Anxiety is growing that Mr. Putin will use the event, when he traditionally presides over a parade and gives a militaristic speech, to lash out at Russia’s perceived enemies and expand the scope of the conflict.
In a sign of those concerns, Ben Wallace, the British defense secretary, predicted last week that Mr. Putin would use the occasion to redefine what the Russian leader has called a “special military operation” into a war, calling for a mass mobilization of the Russian people.
Such a declaration would present a new challenge to war-battered Ukraine, as well as to Washington and its NATO allies as they try to counter Russian aggression without entangling themselves directly in the conflict. However, the Kremlin on Wednesday denied that Mr. Putin would declare war on May 9, calling it “nonsense,” and Russia analysts noted that announcing a military draft could provoke a domestic backlash.
Still, Russia’s hierarchy also denied for months that it had intended to invade Ukraine, only to do exactly that on Feb. 24. So the conjecture over Mr. Putin’s intent on Victory Day is only growing more acute.
“This is a question that everybody is asking,” Valery Dzutsati, a visiting assistant professor at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas, said on Wednesday, adding that the “short answer is nobody knows what is going to happen on May 9.”
Professor Dzutsati said that declaring a mass mobilization or an all-out war could prove deeply unpopular among Russians. He predicted that Mr. Putin would take “the safest possible option” and point to the territory Russia has already seized in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to declare a “preliminary victory.”
Preparations for May 9 are well underway in Russia, as the country gets set to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Army’s victory over the Nazis while it fights another war against what Mr. Putin claims, falsely, are modern-day Nazis running Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Russian state media reported that warplanes and helicopters practiced flying in formations over Moscow’s Red Square — a show of military might that included eight MiG-29 jets flying in the shape of the letter “Z,” which has become a ubiquitous symbol of Russian nationalism and support for the war.
Other warplanes streaked over Moscow while releasing trails of white, blue and red — the colors of the Russian flag.
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said on Wednesday that military parades on May 9 would take place in 28 Russian cities and involve about 65,000 personnel and more than 460 aircraft.
Ukraine warned that Russia was also planning to hold May 9 events in occupied Ukrainian cities, including the devastated southern port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian officials say more than 20,000 civilians have been killed and those who remain have been struggling to survive without adequate food, heat and water.
Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency said that Russians were cleaning Mariupol’s central streets of corpses and debris in an effort to make the city presentable as “the center of celebrations.”
Ukrainian civilians who have been hammered by weeks of Russian strikes are increasingly fearful that Russia could use Victory Day to subject them to even more deadly attacks.
In the western city of Lviv, which lost electricity on Wednesday after Russian missiles struck power stations, Yurji Horal, 43, a government office manager, said that he was planning to go with his wife and young children to stay with relatives in a village about 40 miles away to escape what he feared could be an expansion of the war on May 9.
“I’m worried about them — and about myself,” he said. “A lot of people I know are talking about it.”
In years past, Mr. Putin has used May 9 — a near-sacred holiday for Russians, since 27 million Soviets died in World War II — to mobilize the nation for the possibility of a new battle ahead.
When he addressed the nation from his rostrum at Red Square on May 9 of last year, he warned that Russia’s enemies were once again deploying “much of the ideology of the Nazis.”
Now, with Russian state media portraying the fight in Ukraine as the unfinished business of World War II, it seems almost certain that Mr. Putin will use his May 9 speech to evoke the heroism of Soviet soldiers to try to inspire Russians to make new sacrifices.
But a mass mobilization — potentially involving a military draft and a ban on Russian men of military age leaving the country — could bring the reality of war home to a much greater swath of Russian society, provoking unrest.
For many Russians, the “special military operation” in Ukraine still feels like a faraway conflict. The independent pollster Levada found last month that 39 percent of Russians were paying little to no attention to it.
“When you’re watching it on TV, it’s one thing,” Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government, said in a phone interview from Moscow. “When you’re getting a notice from the enlistment office, it’s another. There would probably be certain difficulties for the leadership in making such a decision.”
Mr. Kortunov predicted that the fighting in eastern Ukraine would eventually grind to a standstill, at which point Russia and Ukraine could negotiate a deal — or rearm and regroup for a new stage of the war.
He noted that while some senior Russian officials and state television commentators have been calling for the destruction of Ukraine, Mr. Putin has been more vague recently in his war aims, at least in public comments.
Mr. Kortunov said Mr. Putin could still declare the mission accomplished once Russia captured most of the Donbas region. Russia has expanded its control of that region significantly since the start of the war, but Ukraine still holds several key cities and towns.
“If everything ends with the Donbas, there would probably be a way to explain that this was always the plan,” Mr. Kortunov said. “Putin has left that option open for himself.”
With no resolution to the conflict in sight, the European Union on Wednesday took a major step intended to weaken Mr. Putin’s ability to finance the war, proposing a total embargo on Russian oil. The measure, expected to win final approval in a few days, would ban Russian crude oil imports to nearly all of the European Union in the next six months, and prohibit refined oil products by year’s end.
“Let us be clear, it will not be easy,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where the announcement was greeted with applause. “Some member states are strongly dependent on Russian oil. But we simply have to work on it.”
The European Union also promised on Wednesday to provide additional military support for Moldova, a former Soviet republic on Ukraine’s southwest border that Western officials say could be used by Russia as a launchpad for further attacks.
Security fears in Moldova swelled last week as mysterious explosions rocked Transnistria, a Kremlin-backed separatist region of the country where Russia has maintained soldiers since 1992.
Although European officials said they would “significantly increase” military support for Moldova, delivering additional military equipment, as well as instruments to counter disinformation and cyberattacks, they did not provide details.
Reporting was contributed by Jane Arraf, Neil MacFarquhar, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk.
Western support of Ukraine hardened Friday as the European Union was poised to approve an embargo on Russian oil, amid fresh assessments that the Russian military’s eastern offensive was faltering, hampered by logistical issues and stiff Ukrainian resistance.
The oil embargo, which would be phased in over a period of some months, is expected to be approved by E.U. ambassadors next week, in a step that should avoid the time-consuming process of gathering heads of state.
Word of the European oil embargo came amid a surge of activity to provide Ukraine with more weapons and support, while shoring up NATO’s defenses, as the Kremlin and Western allies seemed to gird for a drawn-out struggle that risked spilling over Ukraine’s borders.
President Biden’s request Thursday for Congress to approve $33 billion to bolster Ukraine’s arsenal and economy was followed by more commitments by allies. Britain’s military said on Friday that it would deploy 8,000 soldiers to Europe, who were to join tens of thousands of troops from NATO countries in exercises meant to deter further Russian aggression.
While the NATO allies’ commitments to Ukraine grew, the Russian offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine showed signs of stalling amid heavy battlefield losses and was now “several days behind” schedule, a senior Pentagon official said on Friday.
Britain’s Defense Intelligence agency largely concurred, saying on Friday that “Russian territorial gains have been limited and achieved at significant cost to Russian forces.”
In a video released on Friday, an aide to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, called the Russian losses “colossal.”
The Russian military is trying to encircle Ukrainian troops in the Donbas region by attacking from the north, east and south, but has made little progress, experts and Pentagon officials say.
Victory in the Donbas campaign is vital to Moscow’s plans of carving out a large chunk of southern and eastern Ukraine, from Odesa in the south through Mariupol and up to Kharkiv in the north, and bringing it under Russian domination or even outright annexation.
Moscow now has 92 battalion groups fighting in Donbas — up from 85 a week ago, but still well below the 125 it had in the first phase of the war, the Pentagon official said. Each battalion group has about 700 to 1,000 troops.
Russia still has massive firepower in the region, but many of those battalions were badly damaged in early fighting around the capital, Kyiv, and have been rushed back into action in Donbas before being restored to full fighting strength, the Pentagon official said.
Some military experts gave a grimmer assessment of Russia’s prospects on Friday. Dr. Mike Martin, a visiting fellow in war studies at King’s College London, told the BBC that Russia’s offensive had “sort of fizzled” and that the battle for eastern Ukraine could be over in two to four weeks.
Russia’s early failures, its inability to do “some bold maneuver” in recent fighting and Ukraine’s growing prowess on the battlefield is behind a “major strategic shift” among Western countries, he said, as they expand their aims beyond defending Ukraine to defeating Russia and degrading its military.
In an effort to shore up its forces, Russia has unleashed a barrage of missile and artillery strikes all along the front, continuing its strategy of targeting civilian as well as military targets. “It’s brutality of the coldest and the most depraved sort,” the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters on Friday.
Ukrainian troops on Friday staged a counterattack in the northern Donbas, retaking Ruska Lozova, a town of around 6,000 people about 12 miles north of Kharkiv that had been occupied by Russian forces since March.
Many of the town’s remaining residents quickly evacuated, taking advantage of the now-open road to Kharkiv. Cars, some riddled with bullet holes, limped into the city, fully packed with luggage, people and pets.
The battle for Ruska Lozova is part of a broader campaign launched by Ukrainian forces in recent weeks to push Russian troops away from Kharkiv, and hopefully put it outside of Russian artillery range. Fighting has been fierce, as the Russian border is roughly 20 miles from the city.
Before the war, Kharkiv was Ukraine’s second-largest city with a population of around 1.4 million people. But it is now a shell of itself, with many of its neighborhoods emptied, after relentless bombardment.
In another sign of Moscow’s sense of urgency, several of the dozen battalion groups that had been fighting in Mariupol were sent to fight in Donbas, the Pentagon official said, even as Ukrainian fighters resisted in the beleaguered city.
The remaining Russian forces continued to pound Mariupol in their struggle to eliminate the last pocket of resistance there. The city’s mayor made a desperate appeal to the international community Friday to save those still trapped at an enormous steel plant that has become the last holdout for Ukrainian fighters and civilians.
Vadym Boychenko, Mariupol’s mayor, said there were more than 600 wounded — including soldiers and civilians — at the Azovstal complex. “They have been there for more than 60 days and they are begging to be saved,” he said, reiterating that supplies of water, medicine and ammunition were quickly depleting. “It is not a matter of days, it’s a matter of hours.”
About 20,000 civilians have been killed, he said, but denied that the city had been fully conquered.
The European Union move to ban Russian oil imports, a long-postponed step that has divided the bloc’s members and highlighted their dependence on Russian energy sources, was another sign that Ukraine’s Western allies were dialing up their support by taking difficult measures to punish Russia.
It has taken weeks for E.U. countries to agree on the contours of the measure, and intensive talks will continue over the weekend before the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, puts a finalized proposal on paper for E.U. ambassadors to approve, several E.U. officials and diplomats involved in the process said.
The diplomats and officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the progress of the sensitive talks.
Russia is Europe’s biggest oil supplier, providing about one quarter of the bloc’s yearly needs, according to 2020 data, about half of Russia’s total exports. As the oil embargo is phased in, officials said the bloc would seek to make up the shortfall by increasing imports from other sources, like Persian Gulf countries, Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
That the European Union is now seemingly able to hammer out a compromise among its 27 member countries on a measure this difficult highlights a fundamental miscalculation by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in his assault on Ukraine: Instead of sowing discord, the war has forged a united front that is making tough compromises easier to reach.
“More important than the oil embargo is the signal that Europe is united and taking back the initiative,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a consultancy. Mr. Rahman said that a more abrupt cut to oil imports would have been more painful for Russia, but also too costly for Europe, risking erosion of public support for Ukraine.
If enacted next week, as expected, the oil embargo will be the biggest and most important new step in the E.U.’s sixth package of sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine. It will also include sanctions against Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, which had so far been spared, officials said.
Germany’s position has been critical in finalizing the new measure; the country, the bloc’s economic leader, was importing about a third of its oil from Russia at the time of the Ukraine invasion. But its influential energy minister, Robert Habeck, said this week that Germany had been able to cut that to just 12 percent in recent weeks, making a full embargo “manageable.”
“The problem that seemed very large for Germany only a few weeks ago has become much smaller,” Mr. Habeck told the news media during a visit to Warsaw on Tuesday. He added, “Germany has come very, very close to independence from Russian oil imports.” But he did not explain how it was able to accomplish that so quickly.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland.
In destructive power, the behemoths of the Cold War dwarfed the American atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Washington’s biggest test blast was 1,000 times as large. Moscow’s was 3,000 times. On both sides, the idea was to deter strikes with threats of vast retaliation — with mutual assured destruction, or MAD. The psychological bar was so high that nuclear strikes came to be seen as unthinkable.
Today, both Russia and the United States have nuclear arms that are much less destructive — their power just fractions of the Hiroshima bomb’s force, their use perhaps less frightening and more thinkable.
Concern about these smaller arms has soared as Vladimir V. Putin, in the Ukraine war, has warned of his nuclear might, has put his atomic forces on alert and has had his military carry out risky attacks on nuclear power plants. The fear is that if Mr. Putin feels cornered in the conflict, he might choose to detonate one of his lesser nuclear arms — breaking the taboo set 76 years ago after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Analysts note that Russian troops have long practiced the transition from conventional to nuclear war, especially as a way to gain the upper hand after battlefield losses. And the military, they add, wielding the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, has explored a variety of escalatory options that Mr. Putin might choose from.
“The chances are low but rising,” said Ulrich Kühn, a nuclear expert at the University of Hamburg and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The war is not going well for the Russians,” he observed, “and the pressure from the West is increasing.”
Mr. Putin might fire a weapon at an uninhabited area instead of at troops, Dr. Kühn said. In a 2018 study, he laid out a crisis scenario in which Moscow detonated a bomb over a remote part of the North Sea as a way to signal deadlier strikes to come.
“It feels horrible to talk about these things,” Dr. Kühn said in an interview. “But we have to consider that this is becoming a possibility.”
Washington expects more atomic moves from Mr. Putin in the days ahead. Moscow is likely to “increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength” as the war and its consequences weaken Russia, Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
President Biden is traveling to a NATO summit in Brussels this week to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The agenda is expected to include how the alliance will respond if Russia employs chemical, biological, cyber or nuclear weapons.
James R. Clapper Jr., a retired Air Force general who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, said Moscow had lowered its bar for atomic use after the Cold War when the Russian army fell into disarray. Today, he added, Russia regards nuclear arms as utilitarian rather than unthinkable.
“They didn’t care,” Mr. Clapper said of Russian troops’ risking a radiation release earlier this month when they attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor site — the largest not only in Ukraine but in Europe. “They went ahead and fired on it. That’s indicative of the Russian laissez-faire attitude. They don’t make the distinctions that we do on nuclear weapons.”
Mr. Putin announced last month that he was putting Russian nuclear forces into “special combat readiness.” Pavel Podvig, a longtime researcher of Russia’s nuclear forces, said the alert had most likely primed the Russian command and control system for the possibility of receiving a nuclear order.
It’s unclear how Russia exerts control over its arsenal of less destructive arms. But some U.S. politicians and experts have denounced the smaller weapons on both sides as threatening to upend the global balance of nuclear terror.
For Russia, military analysts note, edgy displays of the less destructive arms have let Mr. Putin polish his reputation for deadly brinkmanship and expand the zone of intimidation he needs to fight a bloody conventional war.
“Putin is using nuclear deterrence to have his way in Ukraine,” said Nina Tannenwald, a political scientist at Brown University who recently profiled the less powerful armaments. “His nuclear weapons keep the West from intervening.”
A global race for the smaller arms is intensifying. Though such weapons are less destructive by Cold War standards, modern estimates show that the equivalent of half a Hiroshima bomb, if detonated in Midtown Manhattan, would kill or injure half a million people.
The case against these arms is that they undermine the nuclear taboo and make crisis situations even more dangerous. Their less destructive nature, critics say, can feed the illusion of atomic control when in fact their use can suddenly flare into a full-blown nuclear war. A simulation devised by experts at Princeton University starts with Moscow firing a nuclear warning shot; NATO responds with a small strike, and the ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualties in its first few hours.
No arms control treaties regulate the lesser warheads, known sometimes as tactical or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, so the nuclear superpowers make and deploy as many as they want. Russia has perhaps 2,000, according to Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. And the United States has roughly 100 in Europe, a number limited by domestic policy disputes and the political complexities of basing them among NATO allies, whose populations often resist and protest the weapons’ presence.
Russia’s atomic war doctrine came to be known as “escalate to de-escalate” — meaning routed troops would fire a nuclear weapon to stun an aggressor into retreat or submission. Moscow repeatedly practiced the tactic in field exercises. In 1999, for instance, a large drill simulated a NATO attack on Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea. The exercise had Russian forces in disarray until Moscow fired nuclear arms at Poland and the United States.
Dr. Kühn of the University of Hamburg said the defensive training drills of the 1990s had turned toward offense in the 2000s as the Russian army regained some of its former strength.
Concurrent with its new offensive strategy, Russia embarked on a modernization of its nuclear forces, including its less destructive arms. As in the West, some of the warheads were given variable explosive yields that could be dialed up or down depending on the military situation.
A centerpiece of the new arsenal was the Iskander-M, first deployed in 2005. The mobile launcher can fire two missiles that travel roughly 300 miles. The missiles can carry conventional as well as nuclear warheads. Russian figures put the smallest nuclear blast from those missiles at roughly a third that of the Hiroshima bomb.
Before the Russian army invaded Ukraine, satellite images showed that Moscow had deployed Iskander missile batteries in Belarus and to its east in Russian territory. There’s no public data on whether Russia has armed any of the Iskanders with nuclear warheads.
Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian diplomat who negotiated arms control treaties in Soviet times, said that nuclear warheads could also be placed on cruise missiles. The low-flying weapons, launched from planes, ships or the ground, hug the local terrain to avoid detection by enemy radar.
From inside Russian territory, he said, “they can reach all of Europe,” including Britain.
Over the years, the United States and its NATO allies have sought to rival Russia’s arsenal of lesser nuclear arms. It started decades ago as the United States began sending bombs for fighter jets to military bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands. Dr. Kühn noted that the alliance, in contrast to Russia, does not conduct field drills practicing a transition from conventional to nuclear war.
In 2010, Mr. Obama, who had long advocated for a “nuclear-free world,” decided to refurbish and improve the NATO weapons, turning them into smart bombs with maneuverable fins that made their targeting highly precise. That, in turn, gave war planners the freedom to lower the weapons’ variable explosive force to as little as 2 percent of that of the Hiroshima bomb.
The reduced blast capability made breaking the nuclear taboo “more thinkable,” Gen. James E. Cartwright, a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Obama, warned at the time. He nonetheless backed the program because the high degree of precision lowered the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties. But after years of funding and manufacturing delays, the refurbished bomb, known as the B61 Model 12, is not expected to be deployed in Europe until next year, Mr. Kristensen said.
The steady Russian buildups and the slow American responses prompted the Trump administration to propose a new missile warhead in 2018. Its destructive force was seen as roughly half that of the Hiroshima bomb, according to Mr. Kristensen. It was to be deployed on the nation’s fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines.
While some experts warned that the bomb, known as the W76 Model 2, could make it more tempting for a president to order a nuclear strike, the Trump administration argued that the weapon would lower the risk of war by ensuring that Russia would face the threat of proportional counterstrikes. It was deployed in late 2019.
“It’s all about psychology — deadly psychology,” said Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear expert who backed the new warhead and, before leaving public office in 2005, held Pentagon and White House posts for three decades. “If your opponent thinks he has a battlefield edge, you try to convince him that he’s wrong.”
When he was a candidate for the presidency, Joseph R. Biden Jr. called the less powerful warhead a “bad idea” that would make presidents “more inclined” to use it. But Mr. Kristensen said the Biden administration seemed unlikely to remove the new warhead from the nation’s submarines.
It’s unclear how Mr. Biden would respond to the use of a nuclear weapon by Mr. Putin. Nuclear war plans are one of Washington’s most deeply held secrets. Experts say that the war-fighting plans in general go from warning shots to single strikes to multiple retaliations and that the hardest question is whether there are reliable ways to prevent a conflict from escalating.
Even Mr. Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said he was unsure how he would advise Mr. Biden if Mr. Putin unleashed his nuclear arms.
“When do you stop?” he asked of nuclear retaliation. “You can’t just keep turning the other cheek. At some point we’d have to do something.”
A U.S. response to a small Russian blast, experts say, might be to fire one of the new submarine-launchedwarheads into the wilds of Siberia or at a military base inside Russia. Mr. Miller, the former government nuclear official and a former chairman of NATO’s nuclear policy committee, said such a blast would be a way of signaling to Moscow that “this is serious, that things are getting out of hand.”
Military strategists say a tit-for-tat rejoinder would throw the responsibility for further escalation back at Russia, making Moscow feel its ominous weight and ideally keeping the situation from spinning out of control despite the dangers in war of miscalculation and accident.
In a darker scenario, Mr. Putin might resort to using atomic arms if the war in Ukraine spilled into neighboring NATO states. All NATO members, including the United States, are obliged to defend one another — potentially with salvos of nuclear warheads.
Dr. Tannenwald, the political scientist at Brown University, wondered if the old protections of nuclear deterrence, now rooted in opposing lines of less destructive arms, would succeed in keeping the peace.
“It sure doesn’t feel that way in a crisis,” she said.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.
BAGHDAD — The United States is grappling with a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq after militia forces specialized in operating more sophisticated weaponry, including armed drones, have hit some of the most sensitive American targets in attacks that evaded U.S. defenses.
At least three times in the past two months, those militias have used small, explosive-laden drones that divebomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases — including those used by the C.I.A. and U.S. Special Operations units, according to American officials.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top American commander in the Middle East, said last month that the drones pose a serious threat and that the military was rushing to devise ways to combat them.
Iran — weakened by years of harsh economic sanctions — is using its proxy militias in Iraq to step up pressure on the United States and other world powers to negotiate an easing of those sanctions as part of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iraqi and American officials say Iran has designed the drone attacks to minimize casualties that could prompt U.S. retaliation.
a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published in April. In the last year, a proliferation of previously unknown armed groups have emerged, some claiming responsibility for rocket attacks on U.S. targets.
thousands of American military contractors operate.
MQ-9 Reaper drones and contractor-operated turboprop surveillance aircraft are stationed in an attempt to disrupt or cripple the U.S. reconnaissance capability critical to monitoring threats in Iraq.
The United States has used Reapers for its most sensitive strikes, including the killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi government official and a leader of Iraq’s militia groups, in Baghdad in January 2020.
While the United States has installed defenses to counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems at installations in Iraq, the armed drones fly too low to be detected by those defenses, officials said.
Shortly before midnight on April 14, a drone strike targeted a C.I.A. hangar inside the airport complex in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, according to three American officials familiar with the matter.
No one was reported hurt in the attack, but it alarmed Pentagon and White House officials because of the covert nature of the facility and the sophistication of the strike, details of which were previously reported by The Washington Post.
talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis demanded that Iran stop those attacks, according to Iraqi officials.
While visiting northeastern Syria last month, General McKenzie, the top American commander for the region, said military officials were developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, bolster radar sensors to identify approaching threats more rapidly, and find effective ways to down the aircraft.
In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some of the drones’ remnants have been partially recovered, and preliminary analyses indicated they were made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran, according to the three American officials familiar with the incidents.
These drones are larger than the commercially available quadcopters — small helicopters with four rotors — that the Islamic State used in the battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reapers, which have a 66-foot wingspan. Military analysts say they carry between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.
Iraqi officials and U.S. analysts say that while cash-strapped Iran has reduced funding for major Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting off smaller, more specialized proxies still operating within the larger militias but not under their direct command.
American officials say that these specialized units are likely to have been entrusted with the politically delicate mission of carrying out the new drone strikes.
Iraqi security commanders say groups with new names are fronts for the traditional, powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran has used the new groups to try to camouflage, in discussions with the Iraqi government, its responsibility for strikes targeting U.S. interests, which often end up killing Iraqis.
The Iraqi security official said members of the smaller, specialized groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and in Lebanon as well as in Iran by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversees proxy militias in the Middle East.
American and Iraqi officials and analysts trace the increased unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the U.S. killing of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.
“Because the Iranian control over its militias has fragmented after the killing of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the competition has increased among these groups,” said Mr. Malik, the Washington Institute analyst.
Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — In early 2020, members of a Taliban-linked criminal network in Afghanistan detained in raids told interrogators that they had heard that Russians were offering money to reward killings of American and coalition troops.
The claim, that Russia was trying to pay to generate more frequent attacks on Western forces, was stunning, particularly because the United States was trying at the same time to negotiate a deal with the Taliban to end the long-running war in Afghanistan. C.I.A. analysts set out to see whether they could corroborate or debunk the detainees’ accounts.
Ultimately, newly declassified information shows, those analysts discovered a significant reason to believe the claim was accurate: Other members of the same Taliban-linked network had been working closely with operatives from a notorious unit of the G.R.U., the Russian military intelligence service, known for assassination operations.
“The involvement of this G.R.U. unit is consistent with Russia encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan given its leading role in such lethal and destabilizing operations abroad,” the National Security Council said in a statement provided to The New York Times.
U.S. sanctions and other punishments against Russia. The White House took diplomatic action — delivering a warning and demanding an explanation for suspicious activities — about the bounty issue, but did not base sanctions on it. The Biden administration did impose sanctions for Russia’s SolarWinds hacking and election interference.
The Times had reported last summer that different intelligence agencies, while agreeing on the assessment itself, disagreed on whether to put medium or lower confidence in it. The evidence available to analysts — both alarming facts and frustrating gaps — essentially remains the same.
The release of the full talking points as a statement is the government’s most detailed public explanation yet about how the C.I.A. came to the judgment that Russia had most likely offered financial incentives to reward attacks on American and allied troops. It also sheds new light on the gaps in the evidence that raised greater concerns among other analysts.
not intercepted any smoking-gun electronic communication about a bounty plot. (The Defense Intelligence Agency shares that view, while the National Counterterrorism Center agrees with the C.I.A.’s “moderate” level, officials have said.)
But the statement reveals that despite that disagreement over how to rate the quality of available information underlying the core assessment, the intelligence community also had “high confidence” — meaning the judgment is based on high-quality information from multiple sources — in the key circumstantial evidence: Strong ties existed between Russian operatives and the Afghan network where the bounty claims arose.
“We have independently verified the ties of several individuals in this network to Russia,” the National Security Council statement said. It added, “Multiple sources have confirmed that elements of this criminal network worked for Russian intelligence for over a decade and traveled to Moscow in April 2019.”
The declassified statement also opened a window into American officials’ understanding of the Russian operatives, known as Unit 29155 of the G.R.U. The government has previously resisted talking openly about group, although a Times investigation in 2019 linked it to various operations, citing Western security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
By contrast, the National Security Council statement identified other “nefarious operations” around the world that the government thought the squad had carried out — to explain why the discovery of its involvement with the Afghan network was seen as bolstering the credibility of the detainees’ claims about Russian bounties.
the 2018 poisoning of a former G.R.U. officer, Sergei V. Skripal, in Salisbury, England, and of “assassinations across Europe.”
Unit 29155 was involved in two explosions at ammunition depots that killed two Czechs in 2014. He said the government would expel nearly 80 Russian diplomats.
Days later, the prosecutor general’s office in Bulgaria announced that it was investigating a possible connection between Unit 29155 and four explosions at ammunition depots over the past decade. At least two happened while members of the unit were frequently traveling in and out of Bulgaria, the office said.
Some of the destroyed arms in both countries, according to officials, belonged to Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms manufacturer who was poisoned in 2015 along with his son and an executive in his company. Officials have previously accused Unit 29155 in that attempted assassination.
While most previous reports about Unit 29155’s activities have centered in Europe, its leader, Maj. Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, has experience in Central Asia. He graduated in 1988 from the Tashkent Military Academy in what was then the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a year before the Soviet pullout from bordering Afghanistan.
The government apparently did not declassify everything. The White House statement described but did not detail certain evidence, keeping its sources and methods of information-gathering secret. It did not specify the G.R.U. unit’s number, but officials have said it was Unit 29155, and the two prior operations the statement mentioned have been attributed to it elsewhere.
as a middleman for the Russian spies, and Habib Muradi. Both escaped capture and are said to have fled to Russia.
And it made no mention of other circumstantial evidence officials have previously described, like the discovery that money was transferred from a G.R.U. account to the Afghan network.
In an interview published April 30 in a Russian newspaper, Nikolai Patrushev, the chairman of Russia’s Security Council, again said it was false that Russia had covertly offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, adding that there was no evidence that it had done so.
The White House statement also brought into sharper focus two gaps in the available evidence that analysts saw as a reason to be cautious.
Military leaders have repeatedly pointed to one in public: The intelligence community lacks proof tying any specific attack to a bounty payment. “We cannot confirm that the operation resulted in any attacks on U.S. or coalition forces,” the National Security Council said.
The other reason for caution is an absence of information showing that a Kremlin leader authorized Unit 29155 to offer bounties to Afghan militants. “We do not have evidence that the Kremlin directed this operation,” the statement said.
The Biden administration’s briefing to reporters last month reignited a debate over the political implications of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the Trump White House’s handling of it — that unfolded last year and dwelled in part on confidence levels.
reported last June on the existence of the C.I.A. assessment and that the White House had led an interagency effort to come up with options to respond but then authorized none.
Facing bipartisan criticism, the Trump administration defended its inaction by playing down the assessment as too weak to take seriously, falsely denying that it had been briefed to President Donald J. Trump. In fact, it had been included in his written presidential daily briefing in late February, two officials have said.
In congressional testimony, military leaders based in the United States who regularly interacted with the Trump White House said they would be outraged if it were true, but they had not seen proof that any attack resulted from bounties. But some military officials based in Afghanistan, as well as some other senior Pentagon and State Department officials, thought the C.I.A. was right, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations at the time.
Among those who found the evidence and analysis persuasive was Nathan Sales, the State Department’s politically appointed top counterterrorism official during the Trump administration.
“The reporting that Russia was placing bounties on American soldiers’ heads was so serious that it warranted a robust diplomatic response,” Mr. Sales said this week in an email.
A top Pentagon official and the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, later delivered warnings over the issue to their Russian counterparts, effectively breaking with the White House.
After the briefing last month, some Trump supporters — as well as some left-wing critics of the C.I.A. and military interventions — argued that the C.I.A.’s bounty assessment had been debunked as evidence-free “fake news,” vindicating Mr. Trump’s dismissal of the issue last year as a “hoax.” Russian propaganda outlets echoed and amplified those assertions.
Michael J. Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., said another factor had fostered confusion. When analysts assess something with low confidence, he said, that does not mean they think the conclusion is wrong. Rather, they are expressing greater concerns about the sourcing limitations, while still judging that the assessment is the best explanation of the available facts.
“A judgment at any confidence level is a judgment that the analysts believe to be true,” he said. “Even when you have a judgment that is low confidence, the analysts believe that judgment is correct. So in this case, the analysts believe that the Russians were offering bounties.”
Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Michael Schwirtz from New York. Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration warned the Kremlin on Thursday over the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Russia had covertly offered payments to militants to encourage more killings of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, delivering the diplomatic admonition as it imposed sanctions on Moscow over its hacking and election interference.
But the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving that Russia paid money to reward attacks.
The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”
The New York Times first reported last summer the existence of the C.I.A.’s assessment and that the National Security Council had led an interagency process to develop a range of response options — but that months had passed and the Trump White House had failed to authorize any response, not even a diplomatic protest.
financial transfers, and that the C.I.A. placed medium confidence in its conclusion.
But, it also reported, the National Security Agency — which is focused on electronic surveillance — placed lower confidence in the assessment, citing the lack of smoking-gun electronic intercepts. Analysts at two other agencies that were consulted, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were also said to split, with the former backing the C.I.A. and the latter the National Security Agency.
Former intelligence officials, including in testimony about the issue before Congress, have noted that it is rare in the murky world of intelligence to have courtroom levels of proof beyond a reasonable doubt about what an adversary is covertly doing.
The re-scrub of available evidence by President Biden’s administration had not uncovered anything new and significant enough to bring greater clarity to that muddied intelligence portrait, so the disagreement over confidence levels remained, an official familiar with internal deliberations said.
The Biden official’s explanation to reporters dovetailed with that account.
Intelligence agencies, the official explained, “have low to moderate confidence in this judgment in part because it relies on detainee reporting, and due to the challenging operating environment, in Afghanistan.”
fled to Russia — possibly while using a passport linked to a Russian spy agency.
The New Washington
As a result, the detainees who recounted to interrogators what they were told about the purported arrangement were not themselves in the room for conversations with Russian intelligence officials. Without an electronic intercept, either, there was a pattern of evidence that fit the C.I.A.’s assessment but no explicit eyewitness account of the interactions.
The Russian government has denied that it covertly offered or paid bounties to drive up attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The public disclosure of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the White House’s months of inaction in response — prompted a bipartisan uproar in Congress. Defending the inaction, President Donald J. Trump labeled the reporting “a hoax” and his White House denied that he had been told about it, seeking to dismiss the intelligence assessment as too weak to be taken seriously.
In fact, it had been included in his written intelligence briefing in late February 2020 and disseminated more broadly to the intelligence community in early May.
But it was also true that analysts at the National Security Agency disagreed with the C.I.A. over how much confidence to place in the agency’s conclusion, based on the imperfect array of available evidence. The Trump administration played up that split.
In testimony before Congress about the issue, Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, disputed the White House’s suggestion that such an assessment had to be unanimously backed by intelligence agencies to be taken seriously.
In previous administrations, he said last July, if the intelligence community assessed such information at any level of confidence, officials would have told both the president and congressional leaders immediately about that judgment and any dissent. If the confidence level were low, he said, an administration would seek more information before acting, while a medium- or high-confidence assessment would most likely result in a response.
never raised the issue of the bounty intelligence in his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But after the C.I.A.’s assessment became public, senior military and diplomatic officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, warned their counterparts after all.
“If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans or, for that matter, other Westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay. That’s what I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Mr. Pompeo said in August during a trip to the Czech Republic. “I know our military has talked to their senior leaders, as well. We won’t brook that. We won’t tolerate that.”
Still, in testimony before Congress and in other remarks, senior Pentagon officials — caught between not wanting to aggravate the White House and not wanting to appear indifferent about the safety of troops — said they would be outraged if the C.I.A. assessment was correct, but also had yet to see definitive proof.
“It is not closed because we never close investigations that involve threats or potential threats against U.S. forces,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said late last year when asked about the status of the inquiry. “We’re looking at it very hard.”
Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Trump for failing to do anything about the C.I.A. assessment, portraying it as part of a strange pattern of deference he said Mr. Trump had shown toward Russia. Mr. Biden mentioning the matter in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination and brought it up in his first call as president with Mr. Putin.
While the sanctions imposed on Thursday were based on alleged Russian misdeeds other than the suspected bounties, the senior administration official said the diplomatic action about the available information “puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions, and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior.”
The official added, “We cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this.”
Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — The Russian military buildup at the Ukraine border and in Crimea could provide enough forces for a limited military incursion, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, told senators on Wednesday as he and other senior officials outlined a range of threats facing the United States.
Russia could simply be sending a signal to the United States or trying to intimidate the Ukrainian government, but it had the abilities in place to do more, Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“That buildup has reached the point that it could provide the basis for a limited military incursion, as well,” Mr. Burns said. “It is something not only the United States but our allies have to take very seriously.”
Mr. Burns testified alongside Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other officials about an array of threats from global powers like Russia and China as well as challenges that have been less of a focus of intelligence agencies in the past, including domestic extremism and climate change.
annual threat assessment report, released Tuesday ahead of the hearing, the intelligence community said that China’s push for global power posed a threat to the United States through its aggression in its region, its expansion of its surveillance abilities and its attempts to dominate technological advances.
Russia has also pushed for a sphere of influence that includes countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, the report said.
Both China and Russia, however, wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the United States, the report said.
Mr. Burns said the Russian actions have prompted internal briefings as well as consultations with allies. President Biden’s call on Tuesday to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was intended to “register very clearly the seriousness of our concern,” Mr. Burns said.
The United States has been tracking the Russian troops for some time, at least since late March. American officials have said privately that the Russians have done little to hide their troop buildup, unlike in 2014 when they first attacked Ukraine. That has convinced some, but not all, officials briefed on the intelligence that the Russian activities may be mostly for show.
penetrated nine federal agencies, and another by China that compromised Microsoft Exchange servers. The Biden administration is expected to respond to the Russian hacking soon, most likely with sanctions and other measures.
Ms. Haines said Russia used hackings to sow discord and threaten the United States and its allies. “Russia is becoming increasingly adept at leveraging its technological prowess to develop asymmetric options in both the military and cyberspheres in order to give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate its interests,” she said.
Lawmakers also raised the issue of a series of mysterious episodes that have injured diplomats and C.I.A. officers overseas. Some former officials believe Russia is behind the episodes, which they have called attacks.
Mr. Burns said he was working with his colleagues to ensure better medical care for C.I.A. officers. He also said he was working to “get to the bottom of the question of what caused these incidents and who might have been responsible.”
Questions on China dominated the earlier Senate confirmation hearings for Ms. Haines and Mr. Burns, and lawmakers again pressed on Wednesday for assessments on China and its efforts to steal American technology. Ms. Haines outlined how China uses technological might, economic influence and other levers of power to intimidate its neighbors.
“China is employing a comprehensive approach to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences,” she told senators.
another recent intelligence report, on global trends, highlighted how the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, along with technological change, were testing “the resilience and adaptability” of society. The “looming disequilibrium,” she said, compels intelligence agencies to broaden their definition of national security.
But at least one lawmaker, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, also asked a more practical question: How many intelligence officers have received coronavirus vaccines?
Mr. Burns said 80 percent of the C.I.A. work force was fully vaccinated and another 10 percent have had their first shot. He said all C.I.A. officers serving overseas “have the vaccine available to them directly.”
Mr. Wray was unable to give an estimate of how many of his agents had received a shot, saying that the vaccination rates varied in field offices in different states. Ms. Haines said 86 percent of her work force had had at least one shot, with a “fair percentage” being fully vaccinated. General Nakasone also had no estimate but said a vaccination center had been set up at Fort Meade, Md., where the National Security Agency’s headquarters is.
Lawmakers have also been pressing intelligence agencies to help examine the problem of domestic extremism. Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the intelligence committee, linked the rise of domestic extremism to the same trends promoting disinformation produced by Russia and others. And he said he wanted the intelligence chiefs to outline how they could help provide better warnings of potential violence like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“go back to school.” Mr. Trump’s last director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, chose not to release a threat assessment or testify before Congress last year.