West: More sanctions, isolation if Putin carries out threats

WASHINGTON (AP) – How do American leaders and their allies plan to react when President Vladimir Putin tries to wriggle out of a bad situation? on the battlefields of Ukraine and carries out renewed threats annex territory or even use nuclear weapons?

At least initially, by attempting to duplicate the same tactics that helped corner Russia in Ukraine, US and European leaders have made it clear: more fines and international isolation for Russia, more guns and other support for Ukraine.

It’s not going to be easy. Staying the current course, convincing dozens of allies to stick with sanctions and isolation for Putin, and convincing more ambivalent countries to join has been difficult enough. Global financial and energy disruptions from Russia’s war in Ukraine already promise to make the coming winter a harsh one for countries that have depended on Russia for their energy needs.

And there is no sign that US or NATO officials are equating Putin’s renewed nuclear threats with the same nuclear roar, which in itself could increase the risk of the conflict escalating to unimaginable levels. Even if Putin were to act on his nuclear threat, without detail, President Joe Biden and others are pointing to an ascending scale of carefully calibrated responses based on how far Russia is going.

First, “they will become more of an outcast in the world than they ever were,” Biden told CBS’ 60 Minutes shortly before Putin’s new war moves and renewed nuclear threat.

“What they do will determine what response would occur,” Biden said on the nuclear side, adding that US responses would be “consistent” in that case.

“I don’t think the United States would take an escalating step in the event of a one-off, limited nuclear blast by Russia aimed at deterring Ukraine and its supporters,” said Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary general and former U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control. “Certainly it wouldn’t respond with nuclear weapons.”

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Putin vowed this week to use “all available means” to stave off any challenges as Russia seeks unceremonious claims of more Ukrainian territory, despite heavy battlefield casualties at the hands of NATO-armed Ukrainian forces. In case NATO missed the point, another senior Russian political figure specified the next day that this involved nuclear weapons. Putin also mobilized Russian fighters to launch the seven-month invasion of Ukraine, and announced votes in parts of Ukraine that the West says are intended to provide political cover for the illegal incorporation of those regions into Russia.

US and European Union officials say new sanctions are in the works in response to Putin’s latest moves.

“Russia, its political leadership and everyone involved in organizing these “referendums” and other violations of international law and international humanitarian law in Ukraine will be held accountable,” promised EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the sidelines this week the UN General Assembly in New York.

But political declarations are the easy part. It is unclear what kind of measures can be agreed as financial penalties against Russia are increasingly inflicting pain on other European economies weighed down by high electricity and natural gas prices and rising inflation. Hungary has led resistance to sanctions that could hit its supplies from Russia, but it is not hesitating alone.

New sanctions may only be imposed after much debate and hand-wringing among the 27 EU member countries in the coming weeks, likely after Russia has held its referendums.

The latest round of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was announced on May 4 but not agreed until four weeks later as oil concerns divided member countries. Instead of a series of new sanctions, a “maintenance and adjustment package” was sealed in July, mainly to close loopholes in already agreed measures.

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Pressed by reporters in New York for details on what might be coming, Borrell said the sanctions would target “new areas of the Russian economy, particularly — if I may be more specific — the technological ones.”

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU executive, the European Commission, which was responsible for drafting most of the sanctions, was determined but hardly more accommodating.

“We stand ready to impose further economic costs on Russia and on individuals and organizations inside and outside Russia that support (the war) politically or economically. Also, we will propose additional export controls for civilian technology when Russia moves to a full war economy,” she told CNN.

Economic sanctions aside, the EU has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on more than 1,200 Russians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, including Putin, Russia’s foreign minister and other senior officials.

Militarily, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this month that NATO is working with the defense industry to find ways to boost arms production to better meet Ukraine’s needs and to replenish the arsenals of allies who have supplied weapons and defense systems.

“We’ve seen the industry ramp up production of vaccines during the COVID crisis, and now to some extent we have to follow the same approach: ramp up production of weapons and ammunition quickly,” he told The Associated Press .

The US maintains ambiguity about how it would respond to the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict for political reasons. Such an operation would plunge the world back into nuclear war for the first time since the US dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and risk an escalation on a scale the world has never seen.

But public statements by US officials on the matter this month are consistent with weapons experts’ expectations that Washington’s response would be graduated based on the severity of Russia’s nuclear deployment. A one-off and relatively limited Russian nuclear deployment would deepen Russia’s international isolation, but may not necessarily entail an immediate Western nuclear deployment in kind.

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It’s hard to imagine that Putin would launch a key strategic nuclear strike against the United States or its NATO allies, which would be “suicide,” said Gottemoeller, the former NATO deputy secretary general.

Instead, Gottemoeller describes a scenario in which Putin carries out a single demonstration strike over the Black Sea or against a Ukrainian military target, hoping to pressure the Western-allied Ukrainian government into surrender.

Internationally, “there would be a very strong reaction, which … would amount to a renewed redoubling of efforts to help the Ukrainians,” and “also in the form of major condemnation from the international community,” she said.

This condemnation would certainly attract countries that have so far refused to break with Russia or stop doing business with Russia, including China, India and countries in the Global South, she said.

For Putin, an actual nuclear use would give up all the benefits of a simple threat and thereafter pose countless risks for Putin, said Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London.

“The Chinese and the Indians and others unmarked in their condemnation of Russia… would have to speak. The last thing they want is for a precedent to be set for nuclear use,” Freedman said.

“I think we can get scared pretty easily by the rhetoric he uses. But I think, I think it’s best to recognize that it has a purpose that works to prevent the West from directly intervening,” he said. “In order to begin using nuclear weapons against the West, one must at least anticipate the risk of “nuclear weapons coming back your way.”


Cook reported from Brussels.

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