Another earthquake has struck near South Carolina’s capital city
By MEG KINNARD – Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Yet another earthquake has struck near South Carolina’s capital city, the ninth in a series of rumblings that have caused geologists to wonder how long the convulsions might last.
Early Wednesday, a 2.6-magnitude earthquake struck near Elgin, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Columbia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was measured at a depth of 0.5 kilometers, officials said.
That area, a community of fewer than 2,000 residents near the border of Richland and Kershaw counties, has become the epicenter of a spate of recent seismic activity, starting with a 3.3-magnitude earthquake on Dec. 27.That quake clattered glass windows and doors in their frames, sounding like a heavy piece of construction equipment or concrete truck rumbling down the road.
Since then, a total of eight more earthquakes have been recorded nearby, ranging from 1.7 to Wednesday’s 2.6 quake. No injuries or damage have been reported.
According to the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the state typically averages up to 20 quakes each year. Clusters often happen, like six small earthquakes in just more than a week last year near Jenkinsville, about 38 miles (61 kilometers) west of the most recent group of tremors.
Earthquakes are nothing new to South Carolina, although most tend to happen closer to the coast. According to emergency management officials, about 70% of South Carolina earthquakes are located in the Middleton Place-Summerville Seismic Zone, about 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) northwest of Charleston.
In 1886, that historic coastal city was home to the largest recorded earthquake in the history of the southeastern United States, according to seismic officials. The quake, thought to have had a magnitude of at least 7, left dozens of people dead and destroyed hundreds of buildings.
That event was preceded by a series of smaller tremors over several days, although it was not known that the foreshocks were necessarily leading up to something more catastrophic until after the major quake.null
Frustratingly, there’s no way to know if smaller quakes are foreshadowing something more dire, according to Steven Jaume, a College of Charleston geology professor who characterized the foreshocks ahead of Charleston’s 1886 disaster as “rare.”
“You can’t see it coming,” Jaume told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “There isn’t anything obvious moving or changing that you can put your finger on that you can say, ‘This is leading to this.’”
Typically, Jaume said that the recent quakes near Elgin — which lies along a large fault system that extends from Georgia through the Carolinas and into Virginia — would be characterized as aftershocks of the Dec. 27 event, since the subsequent quakes have all been smaller than the first.
But the fact that the events keep popping up more than a week after the initial one, Jaume said, has caused consternation among the experts who study these events.
“They’re not dying away the way we would expect them to,” Jaume said. “What does that mean? I don’t know.”
Iran is closer than ever to being able to build a nuclear weapon. After President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran began enriching uranium to higher levels and stockpiling more of it. As a result, Iran now has the capacity to make enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in less than a month—compared with the roughly one year it would have needed to do so before the United States quit the nuclear accord in 2018.
Iran’s leaders and President Joe Biden’s administration both say they want to return to the 2015 deal, but the parties remain far apart on what nuclear steps or sanctions relief should come first and how far-reaching those steps would need to be. Every day that the talks drag on without resolution, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning; in late December, European governments warned that “weeks, not months,” remained before restoring the old deal would no longer be possible.
The hard truth is that the United States now has few good options for containing Iran’s nuclear program. It can persist with the no-deal status quo, allowing Iran to continue inching closer to a bomb while suffering under sanctions. It can pursue a return to the 2015 agreement and then attempt to get Iran to agree to a “longer and stronger” pact, as the Biden team has suggested. It can try for various other deals, either more or less stringent than the 2015 agreement. Or it can attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure with a military strike, possibly setting Tehran’s progress toward a bomb back by a few years but almost certainly provoking retaliation and possibly a sprint toward the nuclear finish line.
Of these options, a return to the 2015 deal is the least bad. It would pull Iran back from the nuclear brink, and it would offer modest hope for further talks on hard problems such as Iran’s missile program and its support for armed groups throughout the Middle East. It would pose far fewer risks than attempting to set Iran’s program back with a military strike, and it would likely buy more time. But Iran’s gains in knowledge are irreversible, meaning that the old accord won’t be as strong a barrier to the bomb as it was before Trump tore it up, and getting Tehran to agree to strengthen the deal over time will be difficult.
Iran claims that its decades-long nuclear program has always been entirely peaceful. But a wide range of sources of information—confirmed and expanded by an archive of Iranian documents Israeli agents stole in 2017—proves that at least from 1999 to 2003, Iran sought to design and manufacture nuclear weapons and to carry out a nuclear test. It was a comprehensive effort that included each element needed to produce nuclear materials and fabricate them into bombs. The secret program was led by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer who was assassinated, reportedly by Israeli intelligence, in November 2020.
In late 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq and international inspectors began probing some once secret Iranian activities, Iran shut down the parts of its program that were most identifiable as nuclear weapons efforts or that were still covert. But it continued its open uranium enrichment program—suitable for making low-enriched fuel for reactors as well as highly enriched material for bombs—and the construction of a “research reactor” at Arak that was well suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium.
By 2015, Iran had mastered centrifuge uranium enrichment, installed thousands of first-generation centrifuges, started to test more advanced centrifuges that could enrich uranium even faster, and stockpiled substantial amounts of low-enriched uranium. Uranium enrichment is an exponential process, so once centrifuges have increased the 0.7 percent U-235 that comes out of the ground to the four percent suitable for reactor fuel, they have already done two-thirds of the work to reach the 90 percent enriched material typically used for nuclear weapons. In other words, Iran’s large stock of low-enriched uranium meant that it was two-thirds of the way to producing the highly enriched uranium for its first bomb—a process that U.S. officials publicly estimated Iran could have completed in three months.
Today, Iran is closer to a bomb than ever.
The 2015 nuclear deal changed all that. In return for sanctions relief, Iran agreed never to design or build nuclear weapons, took down and stored more than two-thirds of its centrifuges, disposed of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, poured cement into the core of the Arak reactor, agreed never to conduct a range of activities relevant to nuclear bomb development, and accepted a far-reaching set of verification measures.
These limits were designed to lengthen Iran’s timeline for producing bomb material to roughly a year—enough time for the international community to detect such an effort and take action to stop it. But the nuclear deal was a compromise, and its enrichment restraints contained “sunset clauses” that expired in ten to 15 years; its inspection provisions, while unprecedented, were far from “anytime, anywhere”; and it did not require Iran to confess all of its past nuclear activities. Moreover, lifting sanctions and unfreezing assets gave Iran more money, some of which went to support armed groups throughout the Middle East or to further its missile program, neither of which was covered by the deal. The pact’s advocates saw it as “a floor, not a ceiling,” hoping that the benefits of cooperation and increased economic integration with the West would make additional deals and ultimately a different relationship with Iran possible.
None of that happened, of course. Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018, imposing stringent sanctions on Iran with which companies around the world were forced to comply if they didn’t want to be frozen out of the U.S. market and financial system. Iran’s currency plunged, inflation and unemployment soared, and poverty mounted. Remarkably, Iran continued to comply with the terms of the deal for a year after the United States withdrew, making sure the blame would be firmly fixed on Washington. But then it began to step past the deal’s restraints, gradually exceeding the limits on enrichment until in January 2020 it finally announced that its enrichment program would no longer be constrained by the deal at all.
THE NUCLEAR PRECIPICE
Today, Iran is closer to a bomb than ever. The latest reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, published in November 2021, show that Iran has surged far past the limits of the 2015 accord. Tehran’s experts are casting uranium metal, gaining valuable experience they would need to make uranium weapon components. Iran has also blown past the 3.67 percent enrichment limit set by the 2015 deal and is now enriching uranium at up to 60 percent—an easy jumping-off point to produce 90 percent enriched uranium for weapons (or material Iran could use directly in weapons if it modified its nuclear weapon and missile designs). Meanwhile, Iran’s stocks of enriched uranium have grown to over seven times the 2015 limit, and the country has enough 20 percent and 60 percent enriched uranium to rapidly make a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. And despite a dramatic explosion in April at its largest enrichment facility, allegedly a result of an Israeli operation, Iran is running more centrifuges than the 2015 deal permitted, including hundreds of advanced centrifuges, and testing still more advanced devices.
The combination of enriched uranium stocks and advanced centrifuges enables Iran to produce the material for its first bomb in roughly a month—a time frame that will continue to shrink as Tehran’s stocks of 60 percent enriched uranium grow. In another couple of months after a breakout, Iran could have enough material for a second bomb, and then a third and a fourth soon after that. At the same time, Iran has scrapped the extra monitoring agreed to in the 2015 deal and continued to provide false information about the origin of human-made uranium particles inspectors found at several undeclared sites (although it has continued to allow inspections of its declared nuclear facilities).
A return to the 2015 deal could roll back some of Iran’s nuclear progress.
A return to the 2015 deal could roll back some of Iran’s nuclear progress, getting rid of the extra enriched uranium stocks, dialing enrichment back down to 3.67 percent, and taking the advanced centrifuges offline. But the knowledge Iran has gained can’t be erased. Day by day, Iran is gaining more insight into casting uranium metal, operating and manufacturing higher-performance centrifuges, handling highly enriched uranium without causing accidental chain reactions, and frustrating international inspectors without provoking a serious response.
Yet producing enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon is not the same as making a nuclear weapon. To make a weapon, Iran would have to cast and machine the uranium components, manufacture shaped explosives to crush a ball of uranium to much higher density, make exquisitely timed detonators to set off those explosives on all sides of the bomb at the same time, and build a device to set off a shower of neutrons at the right moment to start the chain reaction. Iran worked on all of that in its old nuclear weapons program. But it is unclear how much Iran’s bomb-making capabilities have atrophied in the 18 years since the main parts of its weaponization effort ended or how much the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and other nuclear scientists—as well as the natural deaths and retirements of others—has set the country back. Israeli intelligence agents are optimistic, estimating that even once it has produced enough highly enriched uranium, Iran would need between a year and a half and two years to make a bomb. That’s probably in the right ballpark, unless Iran has unknown secret facilities. But once Iran has produced enough highly enriched uranium, it could hide the material away, making it very difficult to find and disrupt any program to manufacture a bomb.
Iran’s rapid progress on the nuclear front has left the United States with few good options. Without a deal, Tehran’s nuclear program will be essentially unfettered: only fear of provoking a military strike will limit Iran’s progress toward a bomb. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—to which Iran is a party—still prohibits Tehran from making nuclear weapons, but the treaty does not bar the production or storage of weapons-usable nuclear material, so long as it is under international inspection. As a result, Iran might choose to build up its stocks of 60 percent enriched uranium so that it has enough, if further enriched, for several nuclear bombs. Iran would likely also continue testing and manufacturing advanced centrifuges so that it is ready to move rapidly—possibly at a secret site—if it ever decides to take the final step toward nuclear weapons. The only real tools the United States would have to constrain Iran in this case are sabotage and sanctions. Sanctions might modestly limit Iran’s financial support to armed groups in the Middle East, but they would also cause substantial suffering for Iran’s people. Sabotage can create setbacks for Iran, but only temporary ones. Neither, so far, has stopped Iran from making substantial progress toward a bomb. And such actions come with their own risks, potentially heightening the sense of threat that strengthens the position of Tehran’s bomb advocates and intensifying the low-level “shadow war” between Iran, the United States, Israel, and the Gulf states.
Should the United States manage to revive the 2015 deal, it would reduce the nuclear threat posed by Iran, but not to the extent that the original agreement did. More than six years of the time bought by the deal is gone, along with most hopes that the pact could establish habits of cooperation on which additional agreements could be built. And even if Iran mothballed its extra centrifuges and gave up its extra stocks of enriched uranium, it would probably be able to have those same centrifuges up and running again at known or secret sites in relatively short order should it choose to violate the pact. It could also make more centrifuges, expanding its enrichment capacity much faster than it would have been able to before the United States withdrew from the 2015 deal. (One key uncertainty is how rapidly Iran would be able to make and install more of these advanced centrifuges.) By one estimate, reviving the deal would lengthen Iran’s timeline for producing a bomb’s worth of material to between five and six months—up from less than a month today but well down from roughly a year when the deal was first fully implemented in 2016. And returning to the deal would involve again lifting key sanctions on Iran, strengthening the Iranian government and reducing Western leverage.
Some experts have suggested settling for a “less for less” approach—for example, getting Iran to relinquish its stocks of 60 percent enriched uranium, stop stockpiling more enriched uranium, and halt the installation of new centrifuges in return for lifting some sanctions. Such an arrangement might buy some time for talks, but it is by no means a long-term solution.
Others have urged the Biden administration to give up on reviving the 2015 deal and instead impose tougher sanctions to convince Iran to compromise, offering a “more for more” arrangement in which Tehran would accept more substantial restraints than the 2015 deal—perhaps combined with some limits on its missiles and regional activities—in return for lifting even more sanctions (and perhaps other benefits). But the current mess is the result of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, so there is little reason to think that more of the same will lead to a breakthrough. In Tehran, Trump’s exit from the deal has vindicated those who argue that Washington will never be a reliable partner, and these hard-liners now hold the levers of power. Moreover, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s most recent budget proposal assumes that Iran’s economy will grow at eight percent in the coming budget year even without a deal, suggesting that he doesn’t feel much urgency to compromise. And historically, Iran has responded to Western efforts to build leverage by trying to build counterleverage of its own—which partly explains why Iran has deployed so many centrifuges, stockpiled so much enriched uranium, and supported so many armed groups throughout the Middle East.
A military strike could buy from two to five years— less than a negotiated deal could provide.
A more plausible path to a longer and stronger deal would be to first return to the original deal and then attempt to lengthen and strengthen it in subsequent negotiations. That’s worth trying. But because a return to the 2015 deal would require lifting many of the sanctions on Tehran, Washington’s leverage for better terms down the road would be reduced.
A final option is a military strike, which could temporarily disable much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Although Iran could use its deep underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant to produce bomb material, some types of bunker-busting bombs would be able to damage the plant, and the tunnels into the site could be destroyed. But other nuclear facilities would also need to be destroyed, along with Iran’s extensive air defenses, making such an attack a large and complex air operation—far more difficult than the single-site strikes that Israel conducted against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor in 1981 and Syria’s Al Kibar reactor in 2007.
The U.S. military is capable of carrying out such an assault, and Israel has been improving its ability to do so (although its long-range refueling and bunker-busting abilities are more limited). But afterward, Iran would likely rebuild at secret locations, and it might well decide to kick out inspectors and try to build a nuclear weapon before it was found out and attacked again. In other words, such a strike might increase, rather than decrease, the long-term probability that Iran would obtain a nuclear bomb.
Estimates for how much time a military strike could buy range from two to five years— less than a negotiated deal could provide. If in the wake of a strike foreign intelligence agencies located new secret sites, another round of strikes would be needed and possibly another after that. Iran and its proxies would almost certainly retaliate, and they have many options—from long-range missiles that can reach Israel to an estimated 100,000 missiles and rockets in Hezbollah’s hands to ultraprecise drones that carried out what amounted to a warning strike at Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facility in 2019. Neither Iran nor the United States wants another full-scale war in the Middle East, but the risk of blundering into one would be substantial. And, of course, military attacks on foreign countries that are not carried out in self-defense are banned by international law. On the whole, then, the option of a military strike is the riskiest of all, though it would have to be considered if Iran ever did begin racing for the bomb.
SWALLOW HARD AND DEAL
In short, Iran’s nuclear progress has left the United States with some ugly options. Restoring the 2015 deal won’t buy as much time or safety as the original deal did, but doing so is the best of a bad set of choices. Not only would a return to the deal technically constrain Iran’s program, but by reducing the threats to Iran and creating a flow of benefits from cooperation with the West, it would weaken Tehran’s bomb advocates and strengthen those arguing that Iran should maintain the option to build a bomb without incurring the costs and dangers of actually building one. Ultimately, Iran has the technical capability to make a nuclear weapon; Washington’s goal must be to convince Iran’s leaders to choose not to do so.
The Biden administration is therefore right to try to find a path back to compliance with the original deal and from there to a longer and stronger follow-on accord. But with Iran’s hard-line leadership justifiably doubting American promises, there is no guarantee it will be possible to get back to the 2015 pact. And as time passes, the benefits of a return to the original deal will continue to diminish. Moreover, it will not be easy to limit the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program after the sunset clauses expire or to constrain its advancing missile program or address its support for armed groups throughout the Middle East. Ultimately, what is needed is a different relationship between Iran, its neighbors in the Middle East, and the West. A return to the nuclear deal would be one step forward on that long and difficult road.
Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), arrived Sunday in Najaf, 180 kilometres to the south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
A source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Qaani held a series of meetings with different Iraqi political forces to converge views on the next cabinet lineup.
“These meetings aim to unify the Shia house after the recent row between the Coordination Framework and the Sadrist movement,” the source said.
Qaani is also expected to meet the leader of the Sadrist movement, powerful populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to the same source.
Iraq might for the first time in years get a government that excludes Iran-backed parties if Sadr, who dominated the recent election, keeps his word, say Iraqi politicians, government officials and independent analysts.
However, they add that moves by Sadr to sideline rivals long backed by Tehran risks the ire of their heavily-armed militias which make up some of the most powerful and most anti-American military forces in Iraq.
The surest sign of Sadr’s new parliamentary power and his willingness to ignore groups loyal to Iran came on January 9 when his Sadrist Movement, together with a Sunni parliament alliance and Western-leaning Kurds, re-elected with a solid majority, a parliamentary speaker opposed by the Iran-aligned camp.
Parliament must in the coming weeks choose the country’s president, who will call on the largest parliamentary alliance to form a government, a process that will be dominated by the Sadrist Movement with whomever it chooses to work.
“We are on track to form a national majority government,” Sadr said in a statement earlier last week, using a term that officials say is a euphemism for a government made up of Sadrists, Sunnis and Kurds but no Iran-backed parties.
Sadr’s MPs, buoyed by their easy victory in parliament last week, echoed their leader’s confidence.
Iraqi politicians and analysts say the rise of Sadr and political decline of the Iranian camp, long hostile to the United States, suits Washington and its allies in the region, despite Sadr’s unpredictability.
But excluding the Iran camp from the government risks a violent backlash. There have been in recent days attacks on political parties allied with Sadr causing two injuries and material damage to building in Baghdad. They have also challenged the election of the parliament speaker in the Federal Supreme Court.
Qaani’s series of meetings with Iraqi political forces come within this context and as Iran struggles to maintain its political influence, experts say.
According to Iranian media, Qaani visited the grave of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces, as well as other graves in the city of Najaf. The Quds Force commander also paid a visit to the Mausoleum of Imam Ali.
Muhandis was killed in 2020 in the US drone strike which targeted then IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. The Qaani’s visit comes after a string of rocket and drone attacks targeting US advisers in Iraq and Syria in early January. At least some of the attacks were blamed on pro-Iran militias.
Israeli navy ships attacked, Monday several Palestinian fishing boats near the shore of Gaza city, in the besieged coastal region.
Eyewitnesses said the navy fired many live rounds at the boats, in addition to using water cannons, causing damage; no injuries were reported.
One of the fishermen said the boats were only three nautical miles from the Sudaniyya shore, northwest of Gaza city when the navy attacked them.
He added that the fishermen had to return to the shore without being able to fish and provide for their families, in fear of further assaults.
The army frequently attacks farmers, shepherds, workers, and fishermen across the eastern parts of the coastal region and in Palestinian territorial waters, leading to dozens of casualties, including fatalities, in addition to preventing the Palestinians from tending to their lands and from fishing to provide for their families.
In March of this last year 2021, the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza said Israeli mines were responsible for an explosion that led to the death of three fishermen.
If the West fails to meet its security demands, Moscow could take measures like placing nuclear missiles close to the U.S. coastline, Russian officials have hinted.
Jan. 16, 2022
VIENNA — No one expected much progress from this past week’s diplomatic marathon to defuse the security crisis Russia has ignited in Eastern Europe by surrounding Ukraine on three sides with 100,000 troops and then, by the White House’s accounting, sending in saboteurs to create a pretext for invasion.
But as the Biden administration and NATO conduct tabletop simulations about how the next few months could unfold, they are increasingly wary of another set of options for President Vladimir V. Putin, steps that are more far-reaching than simply rolling his troops and armor over Ukraine’s border.
Mr. Putin wants to extend Russia’s sphere of influence to Eastern Europe and secure written commitments that NATO will never again enlarge. If he is frustrated in reaching that goal, some of his aides suggested on the sidelines of the negotiations last week, then he would pursue Russia’s security interests with results that would be felt acutely in Europe and the United States.
There were hints, never quite spelled out, that nuclear weapons could be shifted to places — perhaps not far from the United States coastline — that would reduce warning times after a launch to as little as five minutes, potentially igniting a confrontation with echoes of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
“A hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine would not undermine the security of the United States,” said Dmitry Suslov, an analyst in Moscow who gave a closed-door presentation on the standoff to Russian lawmakers last month. “The overall logic of Russian actions is that it is the U.S. and NATO that must pay a high price.”
And as Ukrainians were reminded anew on Friday, as the websites of the country’s ministries were defaced in a somewhat amateurish attack, Russia’s army of hackers can wreak havoc in Ukraine, but also in power grids from Munich to Michigan.
It could all be bluster, part of a Kremlin campaign of intimidation, and a way of reminding President Biden that while he wants to focus American attention on competing and dealing with China, Mr. Putin is still capable of causing enormous disruption.President Vladimir Putin of Russia answering a question during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 23.Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock
The Russian leader telegraphed that approach himself by warning repeatedly in the past year that if the West crossed the ever-shifting “red line” that, in Mr. Putin’s mind, threatens Russia’s security, he would order an unexpected response.
“Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, fast and tough,” Mr. Putin said last April, referring to the kinds of unconventional military action that Russia could take if adversaries threatened “our fundamental security interests.”
It has reinforced those demands, which the U.S. calls “non-starters,” with a troop buildup near Ukraine and repeated warnings it was prepared to use unspecified “military-technical means” to defend what it considers its legitimate security interests.
In response, the Biden administration has issued warnings of financial and technological sanctions if the Kremlin should follow through with its threats, particularly in regard to Ukraine. American officials say that for all the talk about moving nuclear weapons or using asymmetrical attacks, so far the U.S. has seen little evidence.
At a White House briefing on Thursday, Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, declined to be drawn into the question of what kind of Russian action would trigger a U.S. response — whether, for example, the U.S. would respond to a cyberattack the way it would an incursion into Ukrainian territory.
“The United States and our allies are prepared for any contingency, any eventuality,’’ he said. “We’re prepared to keep moving forward down the diplomatic path in good faith, and we’re prepared to respond to fresh acts. And beyond that, all we can do is get ready. And we are ready.”
Of course, the most obvious scenario given the scale of troop movements on the ground is a Russian invasion of Ukraine — maybe not to take over the entire country but to send troops into the breakaway regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, or to roll all the way to the Dnieper River. At the Pentagon, “five or six different options” for the extent of a Russian invasion are being examined, one senior official reported.Ukrainian soldiers at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region of Ukraine last month.Andriy Dubchak/Associated Press
Yevgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general and a regular Russian television commentator, predicted a looming “limited” war provoked by Ukraine that Russia would win in short order through devastating airstrikes.
“There will be no columns of tanks,” General Buzhinsky said in a phone interview. “They will just destroy all the Ukrainian infrastructure from the air, just like you do it.”
In Geneva, Russian diplomats insisted there were no plans to invade Ukraine. But there were hints of other steps. In one little-noticed remark, a senior Russian diplomat said Moscow was prepared to place unspecified weapons systems in unspecified places. That merged with American intelligence assessments that Russia could be considering new nuclear deployments, perhaps tactical nuclear weapons or a powerful emerging arsenal of hypersonic missiles.
In November, Mr. Putin himself suggested Russia could deploy submarine-based hypersonic missiles within close striking distance of Washington. He has said repeatedly that the prospect of Western military expansion in Ukraine poses an unacceptable risk because it could be used to launch a nuclear strike against Moscow with just a few minutes’ warning. Russia, he made clear, could do the same.
“From the beginning of the year we will have in our arsenal a new sea-based missile, a hypersonic one,” Mr. Putin said, referring to a weapon that travels at more than five times the speed of sound and could likely evade existing missile defenses.
In an apparent reference to the American capital, he added: “The flight time to reach those who give the orders will also be five minutes.”
Mr. Putin said he would deploy such missiles only in response to Western moves, and President Biden told Mr. Putin in their last conversation that the United States has no plans to place offensive strike systems in Ukraine.President Biden meeting with Mr. Putin in Geneva last June.Doug Mills/The New York Times
Russian officials hinted again in recent days about new missile deployments, and American officials repeated that they have seen no moves in that direction. But any effort to place weapons close to American cities would create conditions similar to the 1962 crisis that was the closest the world ever came to a nuclear exchange.
Asked about the nature of what Mr. Putin has termed a possible “military-technical” response, Sergei A. Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said in Geneva on Monday: “Right now there is no reason to talk about what systems will be deployed, in what quantity, and where exactly.”
Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.
The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.
And when a Russian reporter asked Mr. Ryabkov in an interview broadcast on Thursday whether Russia was considering deploying military infrastructure in Venezuela or Cuba, he responded: “I don’t want to confirm anything or rule anything out.”
Moving missiles, however, is obvious to the world. And that is why, if the conflict escalates further, American officials believe that Mr. Putin could be drawn to cyberattacks — easy to deny, superbly tailored for disruption and amenable to being ramped up or down, depending on the political temperature.
Mr. Putin doesn’t need to do much to insert computer code, or malware, into American infrastructure; the Department of Homeland Security has long warned that the Russians have already placed malware inside many American power grids.
The Biden administration has sought to shore up U.S. systems and root out malware. The nation’s biggest utilities run an elaborate war game every two years, simulating such an attack.Anti-ship missile systems moving from positions near the Trefoil base, Russia’s most northern military outpost, in May.Emile Ducke for The New York Times
But much of corporate America remains far less protected.
The fear is that if sanctions were imposed on Moscow, Mr. Putin’s response could be to accelerate the kind of Russian based ransomware attacks that hit Colonial Pipeline, a major beef producer, and cities and towns across the country last year.
The F.S.B., Russia’s powerful security service, on Friday announced the arrest of hackers tied to the REvil ransomware group — a gang connected to some of the most damaging attacks against American targets, including Colonial Pipeline. The move was welcomed by the White House, but it was also a signal that Moscow could flip its cyberwarriors on or off at will.
“There could be all sorts of possible responses,” Mr. Putin said when asked last month about the “military-technical” response he warned about.
“The Russian leadership is rather inventive,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government. “It’s not necessarily only about Ukraine.”
Analysts in Moscow believe that beyond a more threatening Russian military posture, the United States would be particularly sensitive to closer military cooperation between Russia and China. Mr. Putin will travel to Beijing on Feb. 4 to attend the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and hold a summit meeting with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, Russia said on Friday.A portrait of Mr. Putin at a market in Moscow last month.Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Kremlin has noted that Mr. Biden sees China, not Russia, as America’s most complex, long-term challenger — an economic, military and technological competitor that plays in a different league from Russia. Yet forcing the United States to increase its investment in a confrontation with Russia, analysts say, would undermine Mr. Biden’s greater strategic goal.
“The United States, objectively, does not want to increase its military presence in Europe,” said Mr. Suslov, the analyst. “This would be done at the cost of containing China.”
Anton Troianovski reported from Vienna, and David E. Sanger from Washington.
Sunday, 16 January 2022 6:59 AM [ Last Update: Sunday, 16 January 2022 10:26 AM ]
A US soldier looks on while an AH-64 Apache assault helicopter flies above during a patrol by the Suwaydiyah oil fields in Hasakah province, northeastern Syria, on February 13, 2021. (Photo by AFP)
Several rockets have reportedly hit a military facility housing US occupation forces in Syria’s oil-producing eastern province of Dayr al-Zawr.
Local source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Arabic service of Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency that the projectiles landed in the vicinity of the US-controlled al-Omar oil field late on Saturday, causing a fire.
The sources added that American forces stationed at the field put out the fire, and responded with missile strikes.
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries and the extent of damage caused.
US military drones also flew over the field following the attack. So far, no group has claimed responsibility.
Angry locals prevent US convoy from entering Hasakah village
Meanwhile, residents of a village in Syria’s northeastern province of Hasakah intercepted a US military convoy attempting to pass through their community and forced it to turn back.
According to Syria’s official news agency SANA, residents in Salehiyeh Harb village, which lies near the city of Qamishli, and Syrian government forces blocked the convoy on Saturday evening, making it turn around and head back in the direction it came from.
Damascus, however, says the unlawful deployment is meant to plunder the country’s resources.
Former US president Donald Trump admitted on several occasions that American forces were in Syria for its oil.
Turkish military base in northern Iraq under attack
Separately, a number of rockets targeted a military base in Iraq’s northern province of Nineveh, where Turkish military forces are engaged in on-and-off operations against positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
Sabereen News reported that three rockets were launched at Zilkan base in northern Iraq’s Bashiqa region late on Saturday.
The report added that Turkish occupation forces responded to the attack with a volley of artillery rounds.
Iraq and Turkey have been locked in a dispute over Ankara’s military activities in Kurdistan region. The Baghdad government has repeatedly called on the Turkish government to stop violations of Iraqi sovereignty.
Militants of the PKK — designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union — regularly clash with Turkish forces in the Kurdish-dominated southeast of Turkey attached to northern Iraq.
A shaky ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government collapsed in July 2015. Attacks on Turkish security forces have soared ever since.
More than 40,000 people have been killed during the three-decade conflict between Turkey and the autonomy-seeking militant group.