Western allies are figuring out their planned reactions to the Kremlin’s forced annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine expected to be unveiled Friday, as VLADIMIR PUTIN pushes to consolidate dwindling gains in his faltering war.
Putin is slated to deliver a speech Friday where he will announce the annexation of four Russian-occupied regions, just days after widely condemned votes were held that were orchestrated to produce the results the Kremlin sought.
In Washington, Sens. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-Conn.) and LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) unveiled legislation Thursday that would cut off military and economic aid to any country that recognizes the “annexed” territories as part of Russia. The legislation would also pressure the administration to punish Russia swiftly and could be attached to the annual defense policy bill in the coming weeks.
“We are dealing with Hurricane Putin, for the lack of a better word,” Graham told reporters. “He’s trying to rewrite the map of Europe. He’s trying to do by force of arms what he can’t do by process.”
Added Blumenthal: “It is a land grab. It’s a steal. And it is another craven brazen tactic by Vladimir Putin to test the West’s support for Ukraine, and we are having none of it.”
On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson NED PRICE told reporters that “additional measures” were coming in the days ahead. In the meantime, it doesn’t appear that President Joe Biden will order any change in approach to the war — it’ll be the same mix of reprimands for Russia and support for Ukraine.
“This also doesn’t change our thinking on the outlook. We’ve always been prepared for the long haul, and the Russians have as well,” a senior administration official told POLITICO.
The move to politically seize control of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine’s south and east was relatively costless for Putin. He played to his domestic base and seemingly added legitimacy to his illegal invasion, experts said, while also potentially quelling some frustration at home among his nationalist base, which has been calling for him to go all-in on the war effort. The dictator knew there would be little, if any, change in the West’s response to the sham votes.
The goal was “to have a similar situation to Crimea. No one agrees with it, but no one is going to do anything about it either. That would give him a revised victory — or enough of one — because he would have hobbled Ukraine,” said JEFFREY EDMONDS, who handled the Russia portfolio in the Obama administration’s National Security Council.
The question now is whether Russia will change its tactics following the Friday announcement.
One theory is that Putin, aware that his military is struggling mightily against a stiff Ukrainian resistance, might use the sham votes to claim the mission is accomplished and send his troops home, experts said. Few inside and outside the administration think that’s the likeliest option, though, especially since the Ukrainians will keep fighting to reclaim all of their territory even if the Russians want to stop, said MICK MULROY, a former Pentagon and CIA official.
The other possibility — the one seen as far more plausible — is that Russia settles in for a long-term fight. “The Russian government and people are now forced to be all in. If [Putin] couldn’t lose before, he certainly can’t lose now,” Edmonds said.
Whatever Putin’s rationale, his forced referendums and looming annexation will be met with stiff resistance from the U.S. and its allies. “We are dead set against it,” one Western diplomat, who asked to speak anonymously before their government could formulate an official response, told POLITICO.
NATO: PIPELINES SABOTAGED: NATO agreed Thursday with European leaders that both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 were purposely sabotaged by…someone.
“All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” the alliance said in a statement. “Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”
It’s still unclear who, exactly, damaged the pipelines. CNN’s KATIE BO LILLIS, NATASHA BERTRAND and KYLIE ATWOOD reported earlier that European security officials watched Russian navy ships operating near the leak location — before there was any leak.
“Russian ships routinely operate in the area, according to one Danish military official, who emphasized that the presence of the ships doesn’t necessarily indicate that Russia caused the damage,” they reported.
“We see them every week,” the Dane said. “Russian activities in the Baltic Sea have increased in recent years. They’re quite often testing our awareness — both at sea and in the air.”
WHO COULD TAKE OVER FROM PUTIN?: In the unlikely event that Putin is removed from power soon, who could take his place? POLITICO’s DOUGLAS BUSVINE takes a look at 12 possible successors — the Russian “dirty dozen,” if you will.
Top of the list is NIKOLAI PATRUSHEV, the superspy. “The former head of the FSB spy agency, now secretary of the Security Council of Russia, has the advantage of sharing a worldview with Putin — one that is shot through with hostility toward the West in general, and toward the United States in particular,” Busvine wrote, noting that his views are “more extreme” than Putin’s.
Runner up is DMITRY MEDVEDEV, who served as president for four years so Putin could pretend he was complying with constitutional term limits. Medvedev gave the presidency back to Putin, showing the despot he could be trusted. Perhaps his reward for decades of loyalty is the top job once again.
PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP STRATEGY: The White House released its first-ever Pacific Partnership Strategy on Thursday, coming during a summit in Washington with Pacific island nations and as China seeks to become the top regional power.
Per a fact sheet, the U.S. will commit to, among other things, boosting its diplomatic presence in the region, including increasing the number of embassies from six to nine; helping the islands deal with the ravages of climate change; bolstering maritime security; and assisting with connectivity upgrades.
The summit got off to a rocky start when the Marshall Islands reportedly suspended talks to renew the Compact of Free Association Agreement (the administration said that wasn’t accurate) and the Solomon Islands wouldn’t sign on to a joint declaration (which they later decided to do). The administration’s hope is that the gathering, plus the summit, demonstrates America’s commitment to the Pacific islands — and makes the U.S. a more trustworthy partner than China.
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