As the West toughens its tone on Russia, Putin warns of harsh response to ‘unacceptable threats’

April 28, 2022, 1:19 PM UTC

There has been no shortage of heated rhetoric during Russia’s two-month-old assault on Ukraine, but this week’s words—from both Russia and the West—have been particularly aggressive.

The U.S. has talked about wanting to see Russia “weakened”; Russia has warned of a “lightning-fast” retaliation against strategic threats; and the U.K. has indicated it’s fine with Ukraine using British weapons to attack targets within Russia—drawing the threat of “a harsh response” from Russia. The U.K. also said it wants to see Ukraine retake Crimea after eight years of the region being in Russian possession.

“The rhetoric has really ramped up this week,” said Tracey German, a defense studies professor at King’s College London and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, the U.K.’s top defense think tank.

On Monday, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv, Austin indicated a significant shift in his country’s aims in the conflict, which were previously limited to defending Ukraine and its sovereignty.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said. “It has already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of its troops, quite frankly, and we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”

That was probably what prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s angry warning on Wednesday, that “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.

“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,” the dictator said. “We have already taken all the decisions on this.”

If Putin thought that would cause the West to back down, he had another thing coming.

Later on Wednesday, Blinken’s British counterpart Liz Truss gave a keynote speech setting out a major revamp of the U.K.’s approach to international security. “The world should have done more to deter the invasion. We will never make that same mistake again,” she said. “Some argue we shouldn’t provide heavy weapons for fear of provoking something worse. But my view is that inaction would be the greatest provocation. This is a time for courage not for caution.”

“If we look back to the beginning of this war, when Russia first invaded, countries were very cautious about being seen to send any kind of weapons to Ukraine, but there seems to have been a shift in recent weeks,” German told Fortune on Thursday. “This rhetoric last night was much stronger, [though] it remains to be seen if this is going to be translated into official policy.”

Truss’s speech notably included an explicit warning to China over its failure to condemn the invasion, and its increasing trade with Russia. “By talking about the rise of China as inevitable we are doing China’s work for it,” the foreign secretary said. “In fact, their rise isn’t inevitable. They will not continue to rise if they don’t play by the rules.” Truss also said NATO needed to have a “global outlook” and “must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves.”

But her address also suggested the U.K. wants to see Ukraine take back Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 via an illegal referendum.

“We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine,” Truss said.

Ben Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, cautiously backed Truss’s words on Thursday morning. “We are supporting Ukraine’s sovereign integrity. We’ve done that all along. That, of course, includes Crimea,” he said. “But you know, first and foremost, let’s get Russia out of where they are now in its invasion plans.”

Then there’s the highly provocative question of Ukraine using Western arms to strike targets on Russian soil.

Four weeks ago, Russia accused Ukrainian forces of attacking a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, but Ukraine denied involvement. Two weeks later, Ukraine again denied Russian claims of strikes in Russia’s southwestern Bryansk region. This week, a fuel depot in Bryansk and an ammunition depot near Belgorod also went up in flames—Ukraine did not acknowledge responsibility, though presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak did say, “Karma is a cruel thing” and “debts have to be repaid.”

“In war Ukraine needs to strike into its opponent’s depth to attack its logistics lines, its fuel supplies, its ammunition depots, and that’s part of it,” said U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey on Tuesday. “[It’s] completely legitimate for Ukraine to be targeting in Russia’s depth in order to disrupt the logistics that if they weren’t disrupted would directly contribute to death and carnage on Ukrainian soil.”

Heappey added that it was “not necessarily a problem” if Ukraine used British-donated weapons to do so.

Wallace also backed up that idea on Thursday, though he claimed Ukraine would be unlikely to strike targets in Russia using British long-range weapons, as those tend to be fired from the air or sea rather than the mobile launchers that Ukrainian forces typically use.

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Thursday that the West was “trying our patience” with its references to Ukrainian strikes on Russian soil.

“Such aggression against Russia cannot remain without an answer,” she said. “We would like Kyiv and Western capitals to take seriously the statement that further provocation prompting Ukraine to strike against Russian facilities will be met with a harsh response from Russia.”

German said the rhetoric from the Russian side was partly “about trying to deter, trying to stop allies supporting the harshening rhetoric from the U.S. and U.K.” However, she added, “some of it may also be about Putin and the Kremlin using this rhetoric to speak to their own domestic population, to appear tough, to say, ‘We are in a direct confrontation, this isn’t just Ukraine, look, the West are also involved, and we are really up against it.’”

So, given that Putin is famously averse to backing down and the West is also sounding ever tougher, where do we go from here?

“I do wonder if some of this increasing rhetoric is born of the fact that part of the reason Russia invaded in the first place is it thought there would be very little response from the West, based on what happened in the past—its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014,” German said. “That’s not happened, and I think countries in the West are potentially very aware that the tepid responses in the past have led us in part to where we are today. So there’s sense of ‘We need to take a tough line.’

“Whichever way you go, it’s not an ideal situation.”

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

Read More

Ukraine InvasionCybersecurityEnergyTravel IndustryAutos