Eight years after Russia annexed Crimea, it has claimed sovereignty over an even larger chunk of Ukrainian territory through military force and sham “votes”. The post-second world war settlement in Europe lies shattered. By declaring that any attack on the annexed regions would be treated as an assault on Russia itself, and that Moscow sees itself as in an existential war against the west, Vladimir Putin has taken the conflict into its most perilous phase. Nerve-jangling times lie ahead. Yet for western allies to allow this illegal land grab to stand would set a further, devastating precedent. They must formulate their strategy with utmost care, but need to hold their nerve.
Putin’s response to Ukraine’s stunning recent advance in north-eastern Kharkiv has been only to escalate. His mobilisation of fighting-age men aims to bolster Russia’s battered and demoralised forces in Ukraine and avert a broader collapse. His rushing through of planned annexation referendums has allowed him, for now, to declare a victory for his domestic audience.
While Putin on Friday blamed “Anglo-Saxons”, moreover, for explosions that have crippled the Nord Stream gas pipelines to Germany, the most credible explanation is sabotage by Russia. James Sherr, a Russia-watcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and Chatham House, suggests they send a message that Moscow is ready to target critical western infrastructure — and that, for the Kremlin, there is now “no going back”.
Russia’s president is attempting to stake out a win he can spin as a realisation of his war aims in Ukraine, while scaring Kyiv and the west away from counteroffensives and into negotiations. A wild-eyed anti-western rant on Friday portrayed Moscow as leader of a wider “anti-colonial movement” striving to shatter US “hegemony”.
Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling must be taken seriously, but the west should not allow itself to be intimidated into inaction. Nato allies are responding correctly by close monitoring of any signs of Russia readying such weapons, and communicating to the Kremlin the “catastrophic consequences” if one is used. They should seek to persuade China and India to make clear their displeasure at Moscow’s nuclear posturing.
Beyond that, western countries need to maintain a strategy of support for Ukraine and pressure on Russia that aims ultimately to deprive Moscow of the capability to continue its war. They should step up sanctions to squeeze its economy, and better enforce existing measures. They should provide Kyiv with more of the weaponry it seeks, including air defence systems. Financial support is as important as military aid.
Every action Russia takes to intimidate western allies should also meet a countervailing effect. That does not mean tit-for-tat responses, but potentially asymmetrical actions — such as steps to remove legal barriers to confiscating hundreds of billions of dollars of frozen Russian assets overseas.
Russia’s latest actions reflect weakness, not strength. Cracks are beginning to show. The partial mobilisation has prompted tens of thousands of men to flee. Restrictions on western technology imports are slowly suffocating its economy, and its arms industry.
Western countries should make all efforts to send a message to Russia’s people, as more of them question the war, that the sanctions target the Kremlin, not them. But Ukraine and the west cannot accept the terms Putin is now trying to impose — even if further turning the tables and regaining ground will be a longer and more onerous task than Kyiv’s recent advances had briefly allowed them to hope.