The U.S. and Germany said any Russian aggression against Ukraine would trigger a serious response, pushing to offset remarks from President Joe Biden suggesting that Western allies might struggle to react to a small-scale attack.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock delivered the warning after a four-way meeting in Berlin with counterparts from France and the U.K., a show of unity amid Russia’s buildup of troops on its border with Ukraine.
“We’re at a decisive juncture,” Blinken said. “We have been very clear throughout if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our partners.”
Biden seemed to cast doubt on the West’s resolve on Wednesday when he said he expects Russia to “move in” on its neighbor but indicated that the NATO alliance is split over what to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin – who denies he plans an invasion – opts for a minor incursion.
“What I heard President Biden say yesterday is that he doesn’t believe President Putin has yet made up his mind,” Blinken said. “Our task is together through all of the work we have been doing to make clear the different options that President Putin has before him.”
Biden’s remarks did prompt his aides to lay out the most specific description yet of what would trigger U.S. punishment. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Fox News Thursday that Biden told Putin that any movement across the border would be considered an invasion, and that there would be consequences.
Even so, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made clear that Biden’s remarks weren’t received well in Kyiv.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” he said in a tweet.
Europe and the U.S. have been unable to hash out detailed responses to various scenarios that Russia might pursue in Ukraine, and options like sending NATO troops to the country aren’t on the table.
The European Union is steering clear of a group discussion of specific penalties for Russia for the time being, according to people familiar with the matter. Several governments are keen to avoid the debate, fearing it would highlight potential differences within the 27-member bloc.
“Sanctions have the best effect if they are efficient,” Baerbock said. “That means with regard to sanctions which we can achieve in the areas of the economy and finances to check carefully what has the most effect, and not what maybe looks tough to the outside world.”
On Thursday, the U.S. imposed sanctions Thursday on four Ukrainian nationals it says are “pawns” working with Russia’s spy agencies to destabilize their country.
Blinken heads to Geneva for talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday. Ahead of that, he offered a show of U.S. support for Ukraine in meetings with the country’s leaders in Kyiv on Wednesday, as he continues a diplomatic push to head off a Russian invasion that the U.S. has said may be imminent.
And the top U.S. diplomat laid out the stakes for Europe, saying that Russia’s recent actions in other neighboring states like Georgia and Moldova show that it will keep pushing if its actions go unchecked.
“Once the principles of sovereignty and self-determination are thrown out, you revert to a world in which the rules we’ve shaped together over decades erode and then vanish,” he said in a speech at an Atlantik-Bruecke event in Berlin. “And that emboldens some regimes to do whatever it takes to get what they want – even if that means shutting down another country’s internet, cutting off heating oil in the dead of winter, or sending in tanks – all tactics Russia has used against other countries in recent years.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and U.K. Minister of State James Cleverly joined the talks in Berlin earlier Thursday, and Blinken is due to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz later in the day.
Baerbock made it clear on a visit to Moscow on Tuesday that the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be a target for retaliation if Russia uses energy as a weapon. The gas link, which bypasses Ukraine, isn’t operational yet, but it could provide leverage over the Kremlin. At the same time, it could also hit Germany’s energy security as the country exits nuclear and coal power.
“It’s about sanction which really have an effect, not against oneself, but rather against Russia if there is further escalation,” said Baerbock, a longtime critic of the pipeline.
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