How the West Marshaled a Stunning Show of Unity Against Russia

LONDON — The day after Russian tanks and troops poured across the Ukrainian border on Feb. 24, NATO leaders received a deeply frightening message. The alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, opened an emergency video summit by warning that President Vladimir V. Putin had “shattered peace in Europe” and that from now on, he would openly contest the continent’s security order.

However unlikely, Mr. Stoltenberg told the leaders, it was no longer unthinkable that Mr. Putin would attack a NATO member. Such a move would trigger the collective defense clause in the North Atlantic Treaty, opening the door to the ultimate nightmare scenario: a direct military conflict with Russia.

President Biden, who had dialed in from the White House Situation Room, spoke up swiftly. Article 5 was “sacrosanct,” he said, referring to the “one for all, all for one” principle that has anchored NATO since its founding after World War II. Mr. Biden urged allied leaders to step up and send reinforcements to Europe’s eastern flank, according to multiple officials briefed on the call.

Within hours, NATO had mobilized its rapid response force, a kind of military SWAT team, for the first time in history to deter an enemy. It was one in an avalanche of precedent-shattering moves, unfolding in ministries and boardrooms from Washington to London and Brussels to Berlin. In a few frantic days, the West threw out the standard playbook that it had used for decades and instead marshaled a stunning show of unity against Russia’s brutal aggression in the heart of Europe.

A “new normal,” Mr. Stoltenberg called it.

In truth, these 10 days in February shook the world, upending long-held assumptions, sundering decades of productive engagement, and wiping out billions of dollars of investment in Russia. It was anything but normal.

Self-propelled Russian howitzers being loaded onto a train car at a railway station outside Taganrog, Russia, two days before the invasion of Ukraine.Credit…The New York Times

Much as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 set off a tumultuous cascade of changes across Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the West to a comparable, if far more ominous, historical reckoning.

“That was an epochal, peaceful liberation,” Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford University, said of Communism’s collapse. “This is an epochal, violent attempt at recolonization. As we were moved then with hope and excitement, so we’re moved now by horror, anger and fear.”

The shock of Russia’s invasion led Germany to discard six decades of military-averse policy rooted in its own wartime experience. Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the Germans would ship Ukraine 1,000 shoulder-launched antitank rockets, 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles and 2,700 Soviet-era shoulder-fired missiles — as well as embark on a mammoth, $110 billion rearming program at home.

It led the once-divided European Union to unite behind choking sanctions that will ban Russia’s central bank, which holds Mr. Putin’s war chest, from selling any assets to European banks. Brussels, long derided as an economic giant but a foreign-policy dwarf, pledged to spend $500 million on defensive weapons for Ukraine.

It led Mr. Biden to recast a presidency that had been focused on rebuilding America after the coronavirus pandemic and confronting China to one that is waging a twilight struggle against a Cold War rival on the plains of Eastern Europe.

It has reverberated not just in the councils of state, but also in corporate suites, cultural institutions and sports leagues — to say nothing of city streets from Mexico City to Madrid, where tens of thousands of demonstrators have waved the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag and chanted against Russia’s aggression.

A residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, was struck by missiles last week.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Overnight, oil giants like BP, Shell and Exxon walked away from gargantuan investments in Russia. Technology companies like Apple halted sales in Russia, while Google pulled Russian media off their networks. Sports bodies like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee barred Russians from competing.

For each of these institutions, such actions would have been inconceivable only a week earlier. Although the United States and its allies had labored quietly for months, as Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s border, to lay the groundwork for sanctions, the readiness of much of the West remained in doubt.

On Feb. 19, five days before Mr. Putin set his army in motion, Ukraine’s embattled president, Volodymyr Zelensky, flew to a security conference in Munich to issue a frustrated challenge to Western leaders: “What are you waiting for?”

To trace the 10-day period before and after Russia’s invasion, in the worlds of geopolitics, business, culture and sports, is to see how Mr. Putin’s brazen attack made the inconceivable suddenly inevitable.

None of these momentous moves, it must be said, have succeeded in halting the Russian war machine. Ten days on, Europeans are girding themselves for a prolonged siege in Ukraine, facing a future that is menacing and unmoored.

“The world and Europe fundamentally changed,” said Michael Roth, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the German Parliament. “An offensive war is once again the bitter reality on the European continent and we as liberal democracies have to deal with that reality.”

An Accusation of ‘Appeasement’

Few in the elite crowd gathered for the Munich Security Conference late last month believed Russia would go through with a full-blown invasion. Despite detailed warnings in intelligence declassified by the United States and Britain, many said Mr. Putin was playing an elaborate bluff. Even if he did move against Ukraine, some predicted he would stop in two separatist territories in the East, where the large Russian-speaking populations would make it easier to seize and hold ground.

Mr. Zelensky, a comedian and actor turned politician, was the star attraction at the gathering in Munich. When he stepped to the podium under heavy guard at the elegant Bayerischer Hof Hotel, the same stage where Mr. Putin had in 2007 famously inveighed against what he said was NATO’s encroachment of Russia, Mr. Zelensky was deliberately undiplomatic. He harshly condemned the West’s slow-motion approach.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Thursday during a news conference in Kyiv.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“What do attempts at appeasement lead to?” Mr. Zelensky asked. The post-World War II security order, he said, was a poor match for the predations of leaders like Mr. Putin. “They do not keep up with new threats,” he said. “They are not effective for overcoming them. This is a cough syrup when you need a coronavirus vaccine.”

Afterward, Mr. Zelensky met privately with Vice President Kamala Harris. There, he repeated his insistence that the United States support Ukraine’s effort to join NATO, perhaps as soon as this summer. He asked for far more military support. While Ms. Harris characterized it as a good exchange with a valued partner — if not an ally — the Ukrainians emerged angry that she had not come with more concrete plans for military help.

By midafternoon, Mr. Zelensky was in the air again, on a plane with neither a tail number nor a filed flight plan. Journalists and others followed the plane on an app that tracks aircraft, noting how it avoided the airspace of Russia and Belarus to deposit Mr. Zelensky back in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, in time for dinner — and an approaching onslaught.

Germany’s Surprising Reversal

Mr. Scholz, the German leader, was only two months into his new job when he got a taste of Mr. Putin’s ambitions. It came in a nearly four-hour meeting in Moscow on Feb. 15, where the two were separated by the now-famous 20-foot-long table.

Ukraine, Mr. Putin told Mr. Scholz, was historically part of a Greater Russia that had been unraveled by a series of tragic mistakes. Ukrainians and Russians were “one people,” he said. Asked that evening what Mr. Putin was up to, the chancellor replied, “I think we have to take him literally.”

The gravity of the situation became clear six days later when Mr. Putin declared that Russia was formally recognizing the separatist territories, Donetsk and Luhansk, a move that was widely viewed in the West as a prelude to invasion.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany on Feb. 15 in Moscow.Credit…Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev

With war seemingly hours away, Mr. Scholz acted quickly, and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon on Feb. 22, he announced that Germany would scrap Nord Stream 2, an $11 billion undersea pipeline that would transport gas from Russia — and provide Mr. Putin with significant leverage over Europe. A subject of tortured debate in Mr. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, the pipeline had become a symbol of German softness toward Russia and its mercantilist instinct to put economic interests first.

Now, he had killed it.

“The situation is today fundamentally changed,” Mr. Scholz said, standing next to Ireland’s prime minister, who happened to be in Berlin.

The same day, Germany signed off on a first package of sanctions with other members of the European Union. The nearly 600 pages of penalties included travel bans and asset freezes aimed at people in Mr. Putin’s inner circle, including his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and his chief of staff, Anton Vaino.

In Britain, where Russian oligarchs have burrowed deep into the political and commercial establishment, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed travel bans on three wealthy Russians and said any British assets they held in the country would be frozen.

European officials made clear that sanctions could be ratcheted up if Mr. Putin made further incursions into Ukraine. But Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was not entirely satisfied.

A member of the Green Party who had long pressed for tougher treatment of Russia, she lobbied for targeting Russia’s central bank and excluding some Russian banks from SWIFT, an international messaging system for cross-border financial transactions. Removing banks from it would make it much harder to receive or transfer money outside Russia. At this point, though, the chancellor was still resisting.

Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, right, and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, during a meeting with Mr. Putin on Sunday.Credit…Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

Still, in halting Nord Stream 2, a major German taboo had fallen. Mothballing the pipeline has already reopened an anguished debate over the country’s energy policy, with some urging a delay in shuttering of the country’s last few nuclear power plants and Mr. Scholz announcing plans to speed up the construction of two LNG terminals to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas.

More than any other factor, perhaps, Germany’s sudden reversal from equivocation to robust involvement in Western deterrence signaled the united front that Mr. Putin would face if he invaded.

“It was a declaration of war,” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the chairwoman of the defense committee of the German Parliament, said about Mr. Putin’s recognition of the two Ukrainian territories.

And then the war started.

A Halting Path to Sanctions

When Mr. Putin went on television in the early hours of Feb. 24 to announce he had ordered a “special military operation” in Ukraine — avoiding the word “war” — the sound of explosions and air-raid sirens erupted almost immediately in Kyiv and other cities. Russian troops pierced the country from three sides. Military vehicles rumbled across the border from Crimea, which Mr. Putin had annexed by force in 2014.

Until that moment, said Karen Pierce, the British ambassador to the United States: “I don’t think everyone in Europe and around the world expected it to be full-blown. That was the moment that jolted everyone.”

The European Union’s belated recognition was evident in the initially plodding negotiations over sanctions. A decade of crises — from eurozone debt problems to Brexit and the pandemic — had created an almost ritualistic pursuit of self-interest when it came to hammering out Europe-wide policy in Brussels.

Then, too, there are the myriad ways European countries are intertwined with Russia, even beyond gas and oil. There are the Russian tourists who vacation on Greek islands and Cypriot beaches; Italian and French luxury goods sold to well-heeled shoppers in Moscow; Russia-mined diamonds sold in the hustling trade in Belgium’s port city of Antwerp; Austrian banks with Russian branches.

A luxury store last week in Moscow.Credit…The New York Times

These national interests, coupled with lingering skepticism in European capitals of the alarms that American and British intelligence agencies were sounding, led officials in Europe to push for a slow, gradual unfolding of the penalties.

Europeans were similarly reluctant about shipping lethal weapons to the Ukrainian Army, even those categorized as defensive. Fearing a backlash at home, Germany and its neighbors limited themselves to sending protective gear like helmets or flak jackets.

But their resolve quickly stiffened with the start of the war. The Netherlands joined Germany in offering Ukraine Stinger missiles and other weapons. Last Saturday, the European Union brought the arms shipments under its own banner, setting up a nearly $500 million fund for members to send weapons. It was the first time the bloc jointly purchased lethal weapons to arm another country’s army under the E.U. banner — another Rubicon crossed.

“I don’t remember a time when the target of Western sanctions was so economically integrated into the West,” said Tom Keatinge, a senior researcher with the British Royal United Services Institute, a research group in London. Punishing Russia, he said, became an imperative for world leaders and everyday consumers. “It became about, ‘What are you, man on the street, going to sacrifice for Ukraine?’”

Countries that are geographically closer to Russia, like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the Netherlands — backed by the United States and Canada — pressed for a single huge set of sanctions that would genuinely hurt Mr. Putin, according to European officials who took part in the talks.

In particular, these countries were pushing for personally penalizing Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and suspending Russian banks from SWIFT, a kind of financial nuclear option that had by that point become a rallying cry for protesters on the streets of Europe and on social media. But SWIFT was still a no go for the Germans, several officials said.

A ‘Quantum Leap’ in Financial Penalties

It was before dinner on Feb. 24, on the evening after the invasion began, when Mr. Zelensky’s image flickered on a video screen. European leaders were meeting under the highest level of secrecy, without advisers or electronic devices. Clad in suits and ties, they were seated in the comfort of a high-tech conference room in Brussels. Mr. Zelensky appeared to be in a bunker, somewhere in Kyiv, wearing his now-famous military-green T-shirt. The contrast was not lost on anyone in the room.

“This may be the last time you see me alive,” Mr. Zelensky said in making yet another fervent plea for tougher sanctions and more weapons.

When the leaders emerged from the room, they were visibly shaken, several officials said. Some described Mr. Zelensky’s appearance as a “catalyst” and a “game changer.” Later that night and the next morning, they instructed their envoys in Brussels to freeze the assets of Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov, and to finally greenlight the severing of many Russian banks from the SWIFT platform — concerted action against a country that had long divided them.

“It’s a quantum leap,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe. “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought Europeans together on what probably has been the single most divisive foreign-policy issue since the start of the European Union.”

There was a similar evolution in the thinking of the Biden administration. The United States also had initial concerns about using SWIFT as a weapon. There could be unintended consequences, some officials argued, like driving Russia closer to China financially.

Russia’s central bank building in Moscow.Credit…The New York Times

At the NATO emergency summit on Feb. 25, Mr. Johnson, the British prime minister, urged other leaders to suspend Russian banks from SWIFT. He was seconded by leaders from Poland, Latvia and the Czech Republic.

By the next day, the United States was on board, along with the European Union: They would penalize Russia’s central bank and remove some Russian institutions from the SWIFT system, choking off Russia’s access to a cushion of international reserves it had built up since first invading Ukraine in 2014.

Like Germany’s shuttering of the Nord Stream project, the action on SWIFT took Western penalties to an entirely new level.

“Restricting central bank of Russia assets in the early days of a conflict goes far beyond the playbook that we’ve seen before,” said John E. Smith, the former director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “To get the U.S., U.K, E.U., Canada, Japan and other jurisdictions to voluntarily impose this over a weekend is a staggering accomplishment and repudiation of Russia’s actions.”

In the U.S., an Evolution on Ukraine

The annexation of Crimea hung over American officials. Over breakfast at the security conference in Munich, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken vividly recalled the mistakes made in 2014, when Western allies were taken by surprise by Russia’s lightning conquest. It took them nearly a year to cobble together sanctions, none of which were severe enough to force Mr. Putin to reverse himself.

Mr. Blinken, who worked for Mr. Biden, then the vice president, pushed for the United States to send Javelin antitank missiles to Ukrainian troops. But President Barack Obama, fearing a cycle of escalation with Moscow, resisted. Gathering foreign policy experts at a White House dinner in September 2014, Mr. Obama asked, “Will somebody tell me: What’s the American stake in Ukraine?”

Those memories stuck with Mr. Biden, who as vice president had visited Kyiv several times. Now, as president, he viewed Ukraine as a chance to reassert the United States’ leadership on the world stage — a role that had become tarnished after his administration’s chaotic, bloodstained departure from Afghanistan.

American diplomats had held hundreds of meetings with European officials since Russia began massing troops in the fall. In a striking break from practice, the C.I.A. disclosed detailed intelligence about Mr. Putin’s war plans, including so-called false-flag operations that Russia could use as a pretext to strike. That stripped Russia of any element of surprise, even if it did not cause Mr. Putin to rethink his course.

President Biden delivering his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

While the Pentagon is not sending soldiers into the fray, its top generals are deeply immersed in trying to anticipate Russia’s military maneuvers. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, carries around a map of Ukraine, marked with tactical details. With aides, he drills down for details about the location and combat readiness of specific Russian ground units and ship movements.

Hours after the Russians attacked on Feb. 24, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III called his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksiy Reznikov, to reassure him that the United States’ support for Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity was “unwavering,” and that new supplies of Javelins and Stinger missiles were on the way.

The next day, the White House approved another $350 million package of weapons and equipment for Ukraine that Pentagon officials said began flowing within days — lightning speed, as arms shipments go.

“The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” Mr. Biden said. But he added, “Let me say it again: Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict with Russia in Ukraine.”

Iconic Companies Cut the Cord

As the images of burning buildings and fleeing Ukrainians filled screens around the world, the ripple effects of Russia’s invasion spread far beyond government ministries. For multinational companies like Apple, Google, BP and Shell, the costs of doing business in Russia suddenly became untenable.

Apple halted sales of iPhones and iPads, prompting a social media video of a Russian man smashing his iPad with a hammer. Google’s parent, Alphabet, said YouTube, which it owns, would suspend advertising on channels affiliated with state-funded Russian media groups. Google Maps stopped displaying real-time traffic information in Ukraine for fear that it could jeopardize the safety of people there.

It was a turnabout from previous episodes when Google and Apple acquiesced to Russia’s demand to alter how their digital maps demarcated the disputed Crimean Peninsula after Russia annexed it. Last year, both yielded to Russian pressure and removed an app created by allies of the jailed dissident leader Aleksei A. Navalny that was meant to coordinate protest voting during a parliamentary election.

But Google’s actions did not go far enough to satisfy European Union officials. In a video call, they urged Alphabet and YouTube’s chief executives to remove two Russian state-owned news agencies, RT and Sputnik, from YouTube altogether. Two days later, they did so.

The London studio of RT in 2017.Credit…The New York Times

Western oil giants were coming to a similar recognition. BP’s chief executive, Bernard Looney, knew his company would have to walk away from its $14 billion stake in Rosneft, a state-controlled Russian oil company, almost as soon as the invasion began, according to people with knowledge of the company.

Two days after Russia attacked, Mr. Looney held a videoconference with Britain’s business minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, who expressed the government’s concerns. By Sunday afternoon, BP’s board voted to exit the Rosneft holding, ending a foray into the rough-and-tumble world of Russian oil and gas that dated to 2003.

The prospect of Mr. Looney serving on the same board as Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft and a longtime confidant of Mr. Putin’s, would not have sat well with either the British government or people who fill up at BP’s gas stations.

There is no obvious buyer for BP’s Russian stake, and the company warned that the divestiture would force it to take a large write-off in the first quarter. But BP has diversified aggressively into renewable energy like wind and solar power — making its Russian adventure, about which shareholders have long been leery, less central to its fortunes.

“They needed to make a move because otherwise they would face a lot of reputational issues at home and globally,” said Alexander Smotrov, who leads the Russia and Central and Eastern Europe practice at Global Counsel, a London-based consulting firm.

‘What Are We Prepared to Do?’

The most quoted Russian in the heart of Europe right now is not Vladimir Putin, but Vladimir Lenin: “There are weeks where decades happen.”

Ten days after a desperate Mr. Zelensky asked the world what it was waiting for, the world responded on a global scale and with dizzying speed. In gestures small and not so small, individuals and institutions stood up to Russia’s aggression and expressed solidarity with Ukraine.

In the process, NATO has been revitalized, the United States has reclaimed a mantle of leadership that some feared had vanished in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the European Union has found a unity and purpose that eluded it for most of its existence.

“There’s never been a time when people from Britain, Spain, France and Italy were prepared to put their lives on the line to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,” Professor Garton Ash of Oxford said. “The question to which European leaders don’t yet have an answer is, ‘What are we prepared to do for Ukraine in the long term?’”

As Mr. Putin presses his lethal military advance, the unthinkable has already happened. Now it gives way to the unknowable.

NATO foreign ministers on Friday during a meeting in Brussels to discuss the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing refugee crisis in Europe.Credit…Pool photo by Olivier Douliery

Mark Landler reported from London, Katrin Bennhold from Berlin and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels. Reporting was contributed by David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Alan Rappeport and Ana Swanson from Washington; Tariq Panja and Stanley Reed from London; Andrew Higgins from Baranovichi, Belarus; Clifford Krauss from Houston; Daisuke Wakabayashi from San Francisco; and Lananh Nguyen from New York.

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