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One of Mr. Putin’s advisers, Sergei Glazyev, threatened in March to use Russia’s U.S. government debt holdings as an economic weapon.

“We hold a decent amount of Treasury bonds — more than $200 billion — and if the United States dares to freeze accounts of Russian businesses and citizens, we can no longer view America as a reliable partner,” he told Barron’s. “We will encourage everybody to dump U.S. Treasury bonds, get rid of dollars as an unreliable currency, and leave the U.S. market.”

The Russian government immediately disavowed Mr. Glazyev’s threat, but the suggestion continues to reverberate through U.S. financial markets. Some market watchers say the threat is credible in light of Russia’s bid to get China to join a massive sell-off of U.S. mortgage bonds during the 2008 financial crisis to try to upend the U.S. financial system, as revealed by former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson in his recent book. Though China refused, economists say, Russia’s plan could have had devastating effects on stricken U.S. markets.

Russia has in the past attempted to topple the U.S. financial markets, so there always is a covert threat,” said Robert Wagner, a former economics instructor and mutual fund manager. But, he said, “Russia would likely hurt itself more than the U.S. in a massive U.S. bond dump” because it would do little to raise U.S. interest rates while driving down the value of Russia’s investments.

Mr. Wagner noted that Treasury borrowing rates were not affected in March by the massive withdrawal of funds from Fed custodial accounts, which most analysts attribute to Russia, suggesting that interest rates would be little affected by a more overt sell-off unless markets fall into a panic mode.

Russia’s threat is a joke,” Mr. Wagner said. Holdings of $200 billion “is a drop in the bucket for a country that has nearly $18 trillion in debt,” he said.

Mr. Wagner said the Federal Reserve last year bought about $40 billion of Treasury bonds every month and owns more U.S. bonds than Russia, China, Japan or any other single buyer.

Others note that the Fed would not have to step in to buy U.S. bonds if Russia tries to precipitate a sell-off, because any flare-up in tensions between the U.S. and Russia would only serve to enhance the value of U.S. bonds as safe havens for global investors fleeing riskier investments in a time of geopolitical crisis.

U.S. oil weapon

While Russia has moves it could make against the U.S., the U.S. has its own big weapons that could strike at the heart of Mr. Putin’s strategy of exploiting Russia’s leverage as an energy superpower.

The White House has not endorsed calls to dip into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or expedite liquefied natural gas exports to Europe, but it has pointedly refused to rule them out either. Given the silence on the matters, market rumors have run rampant.

Craig Turner, a commodity strategist at Daniel’s Trading, said Mr. Putin could force President Obama’s hand by going beyond Crimea with a military invasion of eastern Ukraine.

“If something like that happened, the EU and U.S. would have to get serious about sanctions,” he said. European nations likely would remain unwilling to take drastic action in light of their extensive trade ties with Russia and dependence on Russian energy, he said, but the U.S. does not purchase oil or gas from Russia and has far fewer trade ties.

“What the U.S. should do is open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, sell a substantial amount over time on the market, and lower the price of crude $10 to $15” a barrel, he said. “That will actually help the U.S. economy by lowering energy costs, Europe will not suffer from sanctions with Russia, and for the next year or two that hurts Russia’s best source of income.”

The U.S. also could use its surplus of cheap natural gas as a weapon, over the longer term, by expediting the approval of liquefied gas facilities that could funnel inexpensive fuel to Europeans, reducing their dependence on Russia and forcing Russia to lower its gas prices to compete, he said.

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