The United States signaled Wednesday that it wouldn’t be cowed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest steps to escalate his war effort in Ukraine, vowing to continue to arm Kyiv for its advancing counteroffensive, even as Putin ordered up more forces for battle and threatened to use nuclear weapons.
The comments came hours after Putin, in a speech aired early Wednesday, announced plans to mobilize about 300,000 Russian reservists for the front and hold “referendums” in occupied areas of Ukraine that could presage a broad annexation of Ukrainian land.
Should Russia’s territorial integrity and people be threatened, Putin warned, “We will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”
The escalation, analysts said, represents an attempt by Moscow to freeze its gains in eastern Ukraine and deter further Western support for Kyiv, before losing any more occupied land to a Ukrainian force that has seized the initiative in recent weeks. It is also an effort by Putin to solve a troop numbers problem that is preventing Russia from conducting offensive operations and risking the further collapse of its positions on the battlefield.
Kyiv has said the orchestration of staged referendums and annexations will not prevent Ukrainian forces from taking back the country’s territory.
“Russia wants war — it’s true. But Russia will not be able to stop the course of history,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a prerecorded address to the United Nations on Wednesday evening.
The White House said the flow of weapons to Ukraine would continue.
“We are going to continue to support Ukraine with security assistance and other financial aid, as the president said, for as long as it takes,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the White House National Security Council, said in an interview with ABC News. “That is Ukrainian territory. It doesn’t matter what sham referendum they put in place or what vote they hold. It is still Ukrainian territory.”
Kirby decried Putin’s nuclear threat as irresponsible, warning of severe consequences if Moscow used such arms in the conflict. Kirby said the United States is monitoring Russia’s nuclear complex and sees no reason at this point for Washington to alter its strategic posture.
Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who visited Kyiv last week, said the Russian reinforcements would take months to train and deploy and wouldn’t necessarily alter the outcome of the war. She noted that Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons do not register the same way in Ukraine, after months of combat, as they do in the United States.
“There, I was struck by the unanimity and attitude both among government people and among civil society that Russia using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would not change the outcome of the war,” she said. “It would simply raise the costs.”
In response to Putin’s nuclear threat, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called an emergency meeting Wednesday evening of E.U. foreign ministers. He said he expects to issue an E.U. response to Putin’s statements at Thursday’s U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is scheduled to attend along with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“What President Putin announced today constitutes another major escalation in the unprovoked war,” Borrell told reporters at the United Nations. “It looked like he’s speaking in a measure of panic and desperation … by threat of using nuclear weapons, he’s trying to intimidate Ukraine and all the countries that support Ukraine. But he will fail. He has failed, and he will fail again.”
If Putin formally annexes the occupied territory his military holds, he could characterize future Ukrainian military operations as attacks on Russia itself, giving him license to take more extreme measures in response and again brandish the nuclear threat. Russian doctrine permits a nuclear response to a conventional attack that threatens the existence of the state.
Though Russian draftees are technically excluded from being sent to war zones such as Ukraine, they could be deployed to the occupied territories, should Moscow deem the lands part of Russia.
Putin’s nuclear saber rattling, analysts say, is an attempt to make Ukraine’s Western backers think twice about enabling Kyiv to inflict a resounding Russian defeat on the battlefield for fear of the possible consequences.
“It’s designed to get us to send less to Ukraine and certainly not to increase the amount of assistance we provide both in quantity and in quality,” said John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He argued that the administration should provide long-range missiles, tanks, air defense systems and fighter jets — weapons the administration has so far refused to send — to ensure Ukrainian victory regardless of Russian threats.
Biden has declined to specify how the United States would respond to the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, saying only: “It’ll be consequential. They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they have ever been. And depending on the extent of what they do, will determine what response would occur.”
His administration has made averting any risk of a direct conflict with Russia a cornerstone of its policy response to the conflict. According to a congressional official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations, the United States will continue to provide Kyiv with more of the same weapons that have helped Ukraine make gains against Russian forces, but it isn’t immediately considering new types of weapons.
One senior U.S. official said it is unlikely that Putin’s announcement does anything other than “steel resolve for continued support” in defense of Ukraine within the administration.
The administration’s decision to supply Ukraine with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) significantly altered the situation on the battlefield this year in Kyiv’s favor. Previously, Ukrainian forces suffered territorial and personnel losses because they were outgunned by Russia’s longer-range artillery.
Putin’s partial mobilization will help placate nationalist hard-liners at home, who have been calling on the Kremlin to unleash the full force of Russia’s power against Ukraine. But the move also risks domestic discontent in other quarters, as Russia calls up reservists and sends them into a badly managed military campaign, in some cases against their will.
It’s a “sign of desperation,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, who studies Russian security issues for CNA, a defense research group in suburban Washington.
Gorenburg noted a confluence of several troubling factors for Putin in recent days, including the Russian military’s stunning rout in northeastern Ukraine, the lack of support for Putin during an international security summit last week in Uzbekistan, and building frustration with the Russian military’s failures among more extreme Russian nationalists.
Russia will probably use the additional forces in an effort to prop up units in Ukraine that already have suffered heavy combat losses, rather than attempting to build new units to deploy, Gorenburg predicted. Doing so, he said, can be accomplished more quickly and could help the Russian military dig in where it is, even if it is unlikely that it can go back on the offensive.
“I’m not convinced it will work everywhere,” Gorenburg said. “And even with relatively limited training, it will take some weeks to get people there.”
The result is an opportunity for Ukrainian forces to try to advance their counteroffensive as aggressively as possible before any Russian reinforcements arrive. The Ukrainians have been steadily chipping away at Russian defenses outside the southern city of Kherson and in the northern part of the Donetsk region.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.