Top US diplomat Antony Blinken will seek to clarify any confusion left by Joe Biden’s suggestion that a minor incursion by Russia into Ukraine might not be met by an allied response in a major set-piece speech in Berlin.
Blinken will assert that the sovereignty of Ukraine is a sacrosanct global principle that must be protected, while also seeking to address the Russian people directly by saying the US is not seeking to imperil the security that Russian people deserve. Blinken is in Berlin to shore up western unity amid signs of a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Biden admitted there were divisions between allies and implied a minor incursion into Ukraine might be met by a lesser response. Later the White House clarified his remarks to say he was drawing a distinction between a Russian physical land invasion over the Ukrainian border or other actions from the Russian playbook such as a cyber-attack.
Biden’s initial remarks drew ire from the Republicans, who claimed he had green-lighted an invasion. They also caused concern in Ukraine, but after the White House mopping up operation Ukraine seemed to have been reassured.
Blinken is due to meet his Russian opposite number Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, but he has said he is not bringing written proposals in response to Russian demands for a legally binding agreement that neither Ukraine or Moldova will ever join Nato. Biden on Wednesday said he did not think Ukraine would qualify for membership soon. Russia wants a US commitment to Ukraine’s permanent exclusion
Blinken will instead set out the issues on which the US is prepared to negotiate with Russia, covering stationing of intermediate missiles, transparency of military exercises and cyber-attacks. Nato is due to make a formal offer to Russia this week.
Biden warned of possible disastrous consequences for Russia if an invasion went ahead, adding he expected one now to occur.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also sought to shore up transatlantic unity, talking of a robust EU response in the event of further attacks against Ukraine.
“If the situation deteriorates, if there are any further attacks on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, we will respond with massive economic and financial sanctions. The transatlantic community stands firm in this,” von der Leyen said during the opening of the World Economic Forum.
“We do not accept Russia’s attempt to divide Europe into spheres of influence,” she said. “If attacks happen, we are prepared.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hit back at Biden, saying his remarks would not help reduce soaring tensions over Ukraine and could even destabilise the situation further.
Asked about Biden’s comments, Peskov said Russia had been receiving similar warnings for at least a month. “We believe that they in no way contribute to defusing the tension that has now arisen in Europe and, moreover, can contribute to the destabilisation of the situation,” he said.
Despite repeated recent statements from Kyiv to the contrary, Peskov also said Moscow feared the sanctions threats by the United States might embolden Kyiv to try to resolve an eight-year conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine by force.
The Kremlin spokesman declined to comment on a parliamentary proposal by a group of lawmakers to appeal to President Vladimir Putin to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states.
The proposal has long been under discussion in Russia but Peskov said it was a lawmakers’ initiative that still needed to be voted on and that he therefore could not comment
In Ukraine, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office, said Ukraine welcomed the fact that Biden had signalled that there would be a coordinated western response in the event of Russia making a move on Ukraine.
He said the important point was that “western states have a common understanding that any negative scenario in relation to Ukraine or in general in Europe will receive a coordinated, sufficient and sensitive response”.
“At the same time, it is important to understand that diplomatic efforts at various levels continue, and de-escalation steps are now the main goal of these efforts.”
Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, on Thursday welcomed French counterpart Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of a possible troop deployment on Nato’s eastern flank.
On Wednesday, Macron expressed France’s “readiness to go further, and within the framework of Nato to commit to new missions … in particular in Romania”.
“I warmly welcome President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on France’s readiness to participate in Nato’s forward military presence in Romania,” Iohannis tweeted.