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Europe is drawing up plans to hit Russia with fresh sanctions amid demands for a swift response, after Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in his war against Ukraine.
The Russian dictator announced a major escalation on Wednesday, including the mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists and a warning that he will use “all resources” at his disposal to win. “This is not a bluff,” Putin said.
Condemnation among Western allies was immediate. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Putin’s plan a sign of “desperation” while French President Emmanuel Macron said the Russian leader was making “a new mistake.” Speaking at the U.N. in New York, U.S. President Joe Biden said Putin’s threats should “make your blood run cold.”
“Well, Putin is showing his weakness now, because what you see is that he plans to mobilize personnel that is less trained, less experienced, less motivated. And he wants to start a referendum on Ukrainian sovereign soil,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN in an interview Wednesday. “I think this calls for sanctions from our side again.”
Behind the scenes in Brussels, European Commission officials were already quietly working on proposals for a new package of sanctions against Moscow. Wednesday’s intervention from Putin reinforced calls for new measures.
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at a press conference late on Wednesday in New York that there was unanimity among EU foreign ministers to adopt additional measures, including against “sectors and persons,” without going into further details.
“Additional restrictive measures against Russia will be brought forward immediately, as soon as possible in cooperation with our partners,” Borrell said, adding that the EU will continue to support Ukraine militarily with weapons.
“Putin wants us to be frightened, he wants us to fragment our unity as we think about nuclear,” Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, said. “The most important thing is to communicate by doing. We need to ramp up weapons aid to Ukraine immediately. We need to immediately increase sanctions.”
Four diplomats said the European Commission was poised to share its sanctions blueprint with EU countries from as soon as Friday. Measures under consideration include the cap on the price of Russian oil, as proposed by the G7, listing more individuals linked to the Kremlin and a new crackdown on luxury goods trade with Russia.
Putin’s war has been flagging in recent weeks, after a Ukrainian counteroffensive proved surprisingly effective. Armed with precision weapons from Western allies, Ukrainian forces regained swaths of territory in the north of the country. That left Putin facing humiliation, and Western allies believe this is what provoked his decision to escalate in Wednesday’s speech.
The response from the Western military leadership was a display of collective calm. Biden’s national security council spokesman said there was no need yet to change policy.
One Western European diplomat put it this way: “Mobilization is a sign of weakness. I don’t expect a qualitative change in the Western response; we will continue to support Ukraine.”
“This speech was designed to have an impact it should not,” said Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks.
“Nothing should be changed in the Western response,” he told POLITICO in a phone interview, adding that support to Ukraine should continue.
Military analysts agreed: “I don’t think it will, and I don’t think it should change support for Ukraine,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, leading researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Officials pointed out that Russia’s messaging does not necessarily reflect reality.
“So far we have not seen any changes in the nuclear posture, the nuclear readiness,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters. Russia’s mobilization effort, according to the NATO chief, “will take time.”
It remains unclear, however, whether Putin’s speech will influence the types of weapons systems Western allies are willing to deliver to Ukraine.
“I still think there’ll be some reluctance — with the Ukrainian military doing as well as it is right now — to escalate,” said Seth G. Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
There will probably be willingness to continue providing weapons, training, intelligence “for the foreseeable future,” according to Jones.
But, he said, “it’s unclear right now to what degree NATO countries are going to be willing to provide more sophisticated types of weapons systems.”
Ryan Heath, Clea Caulcutt and Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting from New York. Leonie Kijewski and Stuart Lau contributed reporting from Brussels.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated when Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russia’s reservists. This happened on Wednesday.
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