West pushes to deepen sanctions on Russia after Putin escalates threats against Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) — How U.S. leaders and their allies intend to respond if President Vladimir Putin seeks a way out of a bad situation on Ukraine’s battlefields and follows through on renewed threats to annex a territory or even to use nuclear weapons?

At least to begin with, in trying to double down on the same tactics that helped put Russia in a corner in Ukraine, US and European leaders have made it clear: no more financial sanctions and international isolation for Russia, no more weapons and other support for Ukraine.

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It won’t necessarily be easy. It has been difficult enough to maintain the current course of persuading dozens of allies to stick with sanctions and isolating Putin, and persuading more ambivalent countries to join. The global financial and energy disruptions of Russia’s war in Ukraine already promise to make the coming winter difficult for countries that depended on Russia for their energy needs.

And there is no indication that US or NATO officials are equating Putin’s renewed nuclear threats with the same nuclear bluster, which in itself could increase the risks of escalating the conflict to an unimaginable level. Even if Putin were to follow through on his nuclear threat, President Joe Biden and others point, without elaborating, to an escalating scale of carefully calibrated responses, depending on how far Russia has moved.

For starters, “they will become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been,” Biden told CBS’s “60 Minutes” just before Putin’s new war measures and renewed nuclear threat.

“What they do will determine what response would come,” Biden said of the nuclear side, adding that US responses in this case would be “consecutive.”

“I don’t think the United States would take an escalation step” in the event of a one-time, limited nuclear blast from Russia aimed at scaring Ukraine and its supporters, said Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of the NATO and former US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control. “Certainly he wouldn’t respond with nuclear weapons.”

Putin pledged this week to use “all available means” to avoid any challenge as Russia moves to summarily claim more Ukrainian territory despite heavy battlefield casualties against Ukrainian forces armed by the NATO. In case NATO missed the point, another senior Russian politician clarified the next day that nuclear weapons were included. Putin has also mobilized Russian fighters to take part in the seven-month invasion of Ukraine and announced votes in parts of Ukraine that the West says are meant to provide political cover to illegally absorb those areas. in Russia.

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US and EU officials say new sanctions are being prepared in response to Putin’s latest moves.

“Russia, its political leaders and all those involved in the organization of these ‘referendums’ as well as other violations of international law and international humanitarian law in Ukraine will be held responsible”, promised this week the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

But the political statements are the easy part. It is not clear what kind of measures we can agree on, because the financial sanctions against Russia are also increasingly inflicting pain on other European economies weighed down by high electricity and natural gas prices and inflation spiral. Hungary has led the resistance to sanctions that could affect supplies from Russia, but it is not alone in hesitation.

New sanctions may only come after much debate and dithering among the 27 EU member countries in the coming weeks, probably only after Russia holds its referendums.

The latest round of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was announced on May 4, but not agreed to until four weeks later as concerns over oil divided member countries. Rather than a new set of sanctions, a “maintenance and alignment” package was sealed in July, primarily to fill gaps on measures already agreed.

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Pressed by reporters in New York for details on what could happen, Borrell said the sanctions would target “new areas of the Russian economy, especially – if I can be a bit more concrete – technology areas.” .

Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the EU’s executive arm – the European Commission – which has been responsible for crafting most of the sanctions, also appeared resolute, but she was little more forthcoming.

“We are prepared to impose new economic costs on Russia and on individuals and entities inside and outside Russia who support (the war), politically or economically. Additionally, we will propose additional civilian technology export controls as Russia transitions to an all-out war economy,” she told CNN.

Beyond economic sanctions, the EU, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on more than 1,200 Russians, including Putin, the Russian minister Foreign Affairs and other senior officials.

On the military front, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this month that NATO was working with the defense industry to explore ways to boost arms production to better meet Ukraine’s needs and to replenish the arsenals of the allies who provided weapons and defense systems.

“We have seen that during the COVID crisis the industry has been able to increase the production of vaccines and now we must have, to some extent, the same approach: rapidly increase the production of weapons and ammunition”, a- he told The Associated Press.

US policy maintains ambiguity as to how it would react to any use of nuclear weapons in the conflict. Such use would return the world to nuclear war for the first time since the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and risk escalating to a scale the world has never seen.

But U.S. officials’ public comments on the issue this month are in line with weapons experts’ expectations that Washington’s response would be graded according to the seriousness of Russia’s nuclear use. Ad hoc and relatively limited Russian nuclear use would reinforce Russia’s isolation internationally, but would not necessarily result in immediate Western nuclear use in kind.

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It’s hard to imagine Putin launching a central strategic nuclear attack on the United States or its NATO allies that would amount to “committing suicide”, said Gottemoeller, the former NATO assistant secretary general. .

Instead, Gottemoeller describes a scenario in which Putin conducts a single demonstration strike over the Black Sea or against a Ukrainian military target, hoping to pressure Ukraine’s Western-allied government to capitulate.

Internationally, “there would be a very strong response that… would amount to redoubled efforts to help Ukrainians,” and “also in terms of massive condemnation from the international community,” she said. .

The condemnation would be sure to appeal to countries that have so far refused to break with Russia or stop doing business with it, including China, India and countries in the Global South, she said. declared.

For Putin, the actual use of nuclear power would forfeit all the benefits of a mere threat and pile up incalculable risks for Putin afterwards, said Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London.

“Chinese and Indians and others who have not been marked in their condemnation of Russia…should speak. The last thing they want is for the precedent of nuclear use to be set,” Freedman said.

He said it’s easy to be scared off by Putin’s rhetoric. “But I think…it’s better to recognize that he has a purpose, which works, to prevent the West from intervening directly,” he said. “To start using nukes against the West, you have to expect ‘at least the risk that ‘nukes will come back your way.’


Cook reported from Brussels.

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