Angry Putin wields energy, nuclear threats against West
Russian President Vladimir Putin cut off natural gas supplies to two key NATO nations, Poland and Bulgaria, on Wednesday and threatened a “lightning fast” military response against anyone who interferes with Russia’s assault on Ukraine, pushing the fallout from the already devastating war deeper into Europe and threatening to accelerate a global energy crunch.
The dual moves by the Kremlin come as the Russian military’s offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region remains largely bogged down amid continued logistical struggles and higher-than-expected casualties, U.S. officials said. The blundering campaign has exposed underlying weaknesses inside Russia’s supposedly cutting-edge war machine, damaging Moscow’s military credibility around the world and fueling hope in the West that Mr. Putin’s Ukraine gambit will fail spectacularly.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin gave voice to that hope over the weekend, telling reporters in Poland that the West wants “to see Russia weakened to the degree” that it will be unable to mount another Ukraine-like invasion in the foreseeable future.
Clearly angered by such comments, Mr. Putin appears determined to escalate the crisis beyond Ukraine.
His decision to cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria — purportedly because the countries refused a demand to change the purchase contract and pay in rubles — confirms Western fears that the Kremlin is willing to use energy as a wartime weapon. European leaders called the move “blackmail” and said it will only speed up Europe’s move away from a heavy current dependence on Russian fuel.
But Mr. Putin’s threats went far beyond energy. Speaking to lawmakers in St. Petersburg, the Russian leader seemed to hint at the use of nuclear weapons against any nation that directly intervenes in the Russia-Ukraine war, and there is little doubt that such warnings were aimed squarely at Washington.
SEE ALSO: Russia cuts off gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria
“If anyone sets out to intervene in the current events from the outside and creates unacceptable threats for us that are strategic in nature, they should know that our response … will be lightning-fast,” Mr. Putin said, according to English-language media translations of his remarks. “We have all the tools for this, that no one else can boast of having. We won’t boast about it. We’ll use them, if needed. And I want everyone to know that.”
A number of Mr. Putin’s advisers, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have issued the same broadly worded threats in recent days, even as U.S. and allied weaponry pour into Ukraine.
Mr. Putin also said that Russia has “already taken all the decisions on this,” suggesting that the Kremlin has discussed how and under what circumstances the Russian military would respond against Western foes.
Meanwhile, Europe was forced Wednesday to grapple with the growing likelihood that Mr. Putin will choose to cut off energy supplies to any nation that aids Ukraine in any way, including those that provide weapons, vehicles and logistical support to the Ukrainian military. Poland, for example, has been at the forefront of Western aid and has served as a key hub for the movement of supplies and weapons across the border into Ukraine. It has also provided sanctuary for more Ukrainian refugees than any other country since the Feb. 24 invasion began.
Gas prices shot up across Europe amid news of the gas cutoff. Russian officials seemed to warn that other nations will meet the same fate if they refuse to pay for their fuel in rubles, the Russian currency that has taken a tremendous hit over the past several months amid massive NATO economic sanctions on Moscow.
Despite the short-term economic toll, European leaders stood firm.
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“We will not succumb to such a racket,” said Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the move is Russia’s attempt to use “fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” but that such a strategy will fail.
“Today, the Kremlin failed once again in this attempt to sow division amongst member states. The era of Russian fossil fuel in Europe is coming to an end,” she said.
On the battlefield, Russian forces captured several small towns in eastern Ukraine but have failed to make any significant breakthroughs since redirecting the bulk of their military might away from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and toward the divided Donbas region. Ukrainian forces holed up in the devastated city of Mariupol still refused to surrender Wednesday, depriving Russia of a crucial land bridge from the Donbas to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, fresh from a visit with Mr. Putin in Moscow Tuesday, was in Kyiv Wednesday for talks with the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Establishing humanitarian “corridors” for Ukrainian civilians trapped by the fighting in the south and east was one focus of the visit, U.N. officials said.
And two Americans military veterans who volunteered to fight with Ukrainian forces against the Russian invaders were reportedly wounded by artillery fire near the city of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region. U.S. Army veterans Manus McCaffrey and Paul Gray had been helping target Russian tanks when they were injured, journalist Nolan Peterson reported on Twitter.
With the war now in its third month, both Russia and Ukraine are forced to deal with rapidly shifting attitudes abroad toward the conflict. For example, DJI Technology Co., the Chinese manufacturer who claims a massive share of the global market for commercial drones, said Wednesday it is suspending sales to both Russia and Ukraine.
Many Chinese manufacturers and financial firms have continued to do business in Russia even as Western firms pull out and announce boycotts. But China’s two-way trade with Russia is dwarfed by the volume of trade it does with both the U.S. and the European Union.
A DJI spokesman told the Reuters news agency the decision to suspend sales to both countries was not meant as a political statement.
“DJI abhors any use of our drones to cause harm, and we are temporarily suspending sales in these countries in order to help ensure no one uses our drones in combat,” the spokesman said.
International aid has been key to Ukrainian forces’ success so far against the Russian invaders. Perhaps most important have been U.S.-provided Javelin anti-tank missiles that have proven remarkably effective at destroying Russian armored columns.
The White House announced Wednesday that President Biden next week will visit a Lockheed Martin Javelin anti-tank missile factory in Alabama, a symbolic move that comes as some lawmakers warn that the U.S. is too quickly depleting its own stockpile of Javelins.
The U.S. supply has dropped about 33% since Russia invaded and lawmakers have pressured Mr. Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up the manufacturing of Javelins.
While the U.S. has facilitated the relatively quick movement of Javelins to Ukraine, some Ukrainian officials say Washington and its allies aren’t moving fast enough to provide other desperately needed equipment.
Maryan Zablotsky, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told the Washington Times on Wednesday that U.S. export law has hindered the delivery of body armor that can protect individuals from ammunition shot from high-caliber firearms such as Kalashnikovs.
“American legislation is unfortunately very complex, and it treats anything related to war efforts as something lethal. So the problems that we’ve been having, even though some Ukrainians were ordering the purchasing of different bulletproof vests, they still require an export license,” he said, adding that prior to attaining the license a special registration is necessary as well.
“So the experience of Ukrainians purchasing bulletproof vests from the U.S. has been relatively poor,” he said, noting that many have told him that most of the vests have been stuck on the border.
— David R. Sands, Jeff Mordock and Kerry Picket contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.