OTTAWA—Russia’s war on Ukraine escalated sharply Friday after President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed four eastern Ukraine territories, prompting Kyiv to apply for fast-track membership in NATO and the U.S. and Canada to promise more support.
In Moscow, Putin renewed threats to use tactical nuclear weapons and blamed the West for sabotaging Russia-built undersea gas pipelines to Germany — an accusation the White House flatly rejected.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly condemned Putin’s latest moves, including “sham” votes this week that were “political theatre” to justify Friday’s “illegitimate” annexations.
Joly said Canada supports Ukraine’s bid to join NATO.
Blinken was more cautious, saying only there is a “process” to follow for any country seeking to join the western military alliance. Sweden and Finland were fast-tracked as countries with “very advanced militaries that are fully interoperable already with NATO, with equipment that is also fully compatible with what NATO countries have, and of course, strong democracies that have been partners as part of the European Union and with us for many, many, many years,” he said.
Under NATO’s article five, an attack on any member nation is considered an attack on all.
Neither Joly nor Blinken downplayed the seriousness of the new threats as they rolled out more sanctions with the European Union targeted at Russian oligarchs and senior officials operating in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, the four annexed eastern Ukraine territories.
Blinken said the U.S. is looking at whether Russia is “actually doing anything” to act on its tactical nuclear weapons threat, saying Putin’s “loose talk about nuclear weapons is the height of irresponsibility and it’s something that we take very seriously.”
So far, Blinken said the U.S. has “not seen them take these actions,” but he underlined that the U.S. administration is planning against “every possible scenario including this one.”
Ultimately, the question of how the West should respond “is a U.S. decision,” said foreign policy expert Janice Stein of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
For the last four months, she said the U.S. has had a “tiger team working full time inside the U.S. national security council” that is gaming out every conceivable response to actions Russia might take, because the stakes continue to rise.
“This is a life-and-death struggle for Ukraine. But nevertheless, we’ve seen now how much is at stake for Putin. He’s doubled down on everything.” In her view, it is an “especially dangerous” period she likened to the 1950s when the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union had early nuclear weapons, “but there were no rules.”
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“What makes it so dangerous is that neither the United States right now nor Russia is confident about the rules. So they push and it’s always possible that one or the other miscalculates and they go over the edge.”
On Friday, Canada along with other G7 countries issued a joint statement denouncing Putin’s actions, calling the annexation “a new low point in Russia’s blatant flouting of international law.”
“We will impose further economic costs on Russia, and on individuals and entities — inside and outside of Russia — that provide political or economic support to these violations of international law,” the declaration said. It supported Ukraine’s right “to defend itself against Russia’s war of aggression and its unquestionable right to reclaim its territory from Russia.”
Canada’s latest round of sanctions targeted 43 Russian oligarchs, a “so-called governing body in Kherson,” and 35 Russia-backed senior officials in the eastern Ukrainian territories.
That brings the count to more than 1,400 individuals and entities Canada has sanctioned in response to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, and comes on top of more than 400 sanctions (for a total of more than 1,800) that had earlier been imposed after the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea.
Joly said Friday that Canada must “redouble efforts for the Ukrainian people” — days after Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters “what we all have to do now is double down on supporting Ukraine.”
Ukraine continues to press Canada for more weapons, ammunition and financial support.
Stein said there is room for Canada to more swiftly deliver weapons and ammunition, because Ukraine is suffering casualties and burning through supplies. “So if we’re doubling down, we have to do much better on that. We’ve pledged but not delivered, unlike financial assistance, which we have pledged and delivered.”
One Germany-based institute that tracks global donations to Ukraine ranks Canada 13th in terms of financial assistance as a percentage of GDP, and fifth in terms of military aid.
Stein suggested there is less to do on sanctions because “we’ve sanctioned all the big fish” with previous penalties on Russia’s central bank and its governor, and restrictions on trade exports. “So it’s not an unwillingness to do more, we’ve exhausted the field.”
She predicted the major impact of those sanctions would be felt next spring when technology restrictions really begin to bite “because of the inability to import technology and critical parts, for advanced weaponry, and for what it takes to run an industrial economy.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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