The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S., allies to increase pressure on Russia following annexation

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link in Moscow on Thursday. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention to formally annex four Ukrainian regions, the United States and its allies put the finishing touches on their plans to respond with measures designed to significantly increase the military, diplomatic and economic pressure they believe will eventually box Putin into an intolerable position.

New sanctions are to be announced on entities inside Russia, and those on the outside that contribute to its war effort, according to U.S. and European Union officials. Long-term commitments are being made to ensure the continued flow of Western weapons to Ukraine. Fence-sitting nations are being cajoled and pressured to take a stand against Moscow.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday repeated that “the United States does not, and will never, recognize the legitimacy or outcome of these sham referendums or Russia’s purported annexation of Ukrainian territory.”

No one appears to believe such statements will immediately deter Putin, nor will any of the planned punishments impose an immediate cost.

But over the past 10 days — since Russia rapidly organized referendums in Ukrainian territories its military forces partially occupy, received the expected overwhelming popular endorsement in staged votes held this week, and scheduled a Putin signing ceremony for Friday — the allied governments have tried to match Moscow’s speed.

In Zaporizhzhia, Russia controlled a referendum but not hearts or minds

At the United Nations last week, President Biden rewrote portions of his General Assembly speech at the last minute to make the just-announced referendums, and a veiled Putin threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, a centerpiece, a senior administration official said. In a message directed at those nations who saw the “democracy versus autocracy” rhetoric that had characterized debates over Ukraine as far from their own concerns, this was seen as an issue that would hit closer to home for many.

It was “no secret” that the United States “is determined to defend and strengthen democracy,” Biden said. But Russia’s attempt to seize another country by force, and change its borders unilaterally, was a violation of the U.N. Charter that “was negotiated among citizens of dozens of nations with vastly different histories and ideologies,” and designed to protect them all.

“No matter what else we may disagree on,” he said, “that is the common ground upon which we must stand.” To sweeten the pot, Biden then said he supported efforts to expand the U.N. power base in the Security Council — dominated by the World War II victors who created the institution — to include nations from the global South.

Several U.S. and European officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, said there was evidence the argument was having some resonance. Major countries such as China and India have recently raised questions about how Putin was handling the situation, as were some smaller nations.

“Russia having announced that they would simply annex territory, and make that part of Russia, also covered by a nuclear umbrella — that is so monumental, so outrageous, that it has catapulted the principle of territory integrity,” a senior European official said. “These countries cannot stay aloof, cannot stay on the fence, about a crucial principle of international law that could actually be used against them. Something has changed” in their calculus, the official said.

“I think … a lot of the countries that have tried to keep their heads down and not weigh in are going to have a really hard time swallowing the annexation thing,” said a senior U.S. defense official.

Russians rebel as Putin drafts more people in battle for Ukraine

Proof of the argument may come with a possible Friday vote on a U.S.-introduced U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the annexations. “We expect that Russia will do what Russia always does — they will veto it,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in announcing the resolution this week. “We plan to have solid support for it.”

Western allies will be closely watching countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Gabon and India, who have abstained on previous measures criticizing Russian actions in Ukraine. If they are disappointed by the votes of those countries or others, “then we will move it to the General Assembly, if we have to, as we did in the past.” The last General Assembly vote on the Russian invasion, in March, brought 35 abstentions.

“I think you can anticipate, if Putin goes ahead with this scheme, and I think we assume that he will, that there will be some significant political and economic consequences, in addition to the security stuff,” the U.S. defense official said. “And then, by the way, we’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing. Which is there will be more security assistance packages.”

The allies are eager to demonstrate to Putin that his hopes that the West will lose enthusiasm for the war — as attention is drawn to other issues, as it continues to drain the allies of money and weaponry, and in the medium term, as the coming winter strains European energy supplies — will not be fulfilled.

Earlier this month, at a meeting of the 40-plus-nation Ukraine contact group created to encourage and coordinate weapons donations and delivery to Ukraine, the emphasis was on sustainment, and the commitment to building what the defense official called Ukraine’s “2023 [military] force.”

A pending Pentagon announcement of an additional $1.1 billion in long-term U.S. military aid was moved up to Wednesday, to demonstrate U.S. staying power before Putin’s upcoming annexation. The package included 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers, or HIMARS. The 16 HIMARS already sent are credited with playing a significant role in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian artillery battle for the eastern and southeastern part of the country, where Russian forces are dug in.

Unlike the earlier shipments that were drawn from existing U.S. stocks, the new systems have yet to be manufactured and will likely take years to arrive. The aid package, bringing total U.S. military aid to $16.2 billion since the start of the war in February, also includes 150 Humvees, 150 vehicles for towing artillery, radars, counter drone systems and body armor.

Funding for the new HIMARS and much of planned future aid, as existing U.S. stocks diminish, comes from the Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act (USAI), a multibillion-dollar fund that the administration is hoping Congress will replenish in the pending Continuing Resolution for the rest of this year. The Senate passed the stopgap measure Thursday, and it now moves to the House.

“Right now, we’re essentially announcing about a billion dollars of [drawdown], and a billion dollars of USAI every month,” the defense official said. “It goes up and down, but that’s the order of magnitude. And if Congress provides the money that we’ve asked for — and I’m optimistic that they will — we’ll be able to sustain that rate through the end of this calendar year, until we have a formal budget.”

The European Union took the lead Wednesday in announcing a new draft of its eighth sanctions law, including proposing a price cap on the global purchase of Russian oil. The measures, to be discussed at a meeting of E.U. ambassadors Friday, include new export bans on the Russian purchase of European appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers, which officials say the Russian military is using to extract chips banned by earlier sanctions. Additional new proposed import bans include the European purchase of an expanded range of Russian products.

“Russia has escalated the invasion of Ukraine to a new level” with the referendums and annexation, E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyden said during a news conference. “And we are determined to make the Kremlin pay the price for this further escalation.” The new sanctions, she said, would be “biting.”

U.S. officials declined to specify additional sanctions they plan to announce Friday.

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