BERLIN (AFP) – The United States and its allies on Thursday warned Moscow of serious consequences if “one” of the tens of thousands of troops gathered at the border were to cross into Ukraine.
After talks in Berlin with Germany, France and Great Britain, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed that Russia “cannot match the determination of Western powers”.
Allowing Russia to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine would “remove us all to a much more dangerous and unstable time when this continent and this city were split in two… with the threat of all-out war that hung over our heads,” he said in the German capital.
In a show of this unity, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, along with Blinken, said the West would not hesitate to act, even if it included actions that “could have economic consequences for us”.
Fears that a wider conflict could erupt in Europe are growing and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that a Russian march on Ukraine would have repercussions beyond the continent.
“It would be catastrophic for the world,” he said.
In a bid to defuse the worst tensions between Russia and the West in decades, Blinken is on a whirlwind diplomatic trip that took him to Berlin on Thursday before meeting Russia’s Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.
NEW NAVAL DRILLS
Moscow insists it has no invasion plan, but has simultaneously made a number of demands – including barring Ukraine from NATO membership – in exchange for a de-escalation.
Washington dismissed Moscow’s demands as “non-starters”, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted this week that the alliance “will not compromise on fundamental principles such as the right to each nation to choose its own way”.
To up the ante, Russia has announced new naval exercises that will involve “more than 140 warships and auxiliary vessels, more than 60 aircraft, 1,000 military equipment carriers and around 10,000 troops” stationed in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and the Mediterranean.
The announcement follows the Kremlin’s furious condemnation of what it called “destabilizing” remarks by US President Joe Biden after the US leader promised a “tough” response to any invasion of Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Russia already held joint military exercises with forces from the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, which also borders Ukraine.
A US official said the exercises could anticipate a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus, with both conventional and nuclear forces.
The West has repeatedly warned Russia that it will pay a “heavy price” in economic and political sanctions if it invades Ukraine.
Hours before Blinken arrived in Berlin to coordinate the possible response to Russia, Biden sparked controversy when he appeared to imply that a “small incursion” could result in a more restrained response from NATO allies.
“It’s one thing when it’s a minor intrusion and we end up arguing about do’s and don’ts and so on,” he said.
Blinken in Berlin clarified the comments by saying: “If Russian forces cross the Ukrainian border and commit further acts of aggression against Ukraine, this will be met with a swift and harsh response from the United States and our allies and partners.
Speaking to German broadcaster ZDF on Thursday, Blinken added that any crossing of the Ukrainian border by Russian soldiers would constitute clear aggression, whether it was one in a thousand soldiers or not, according to a German translation of his words.
Biden also tried to calm tense nerves by saying any movement of Russian troops into Ukraine would be treated as an “invasion” by the West.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who raved about Biden’s remarks on Wednesday, countered that there were no “little quirks.”
“We want to remind the big powers that there are no small incursions and small nations. Just like there are no small sacrifices and little grief over the loss of loved ones,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter.
The Western diplomatic machine has been thrown into overdrive in recent weeks to defuse tensions, but as positions on both sides consolidated, a series of talks between Western and Russian officials in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna failed to materialize.
NATO allies have signaled their willingness to talk, but Moscow has demanded a written response to its proposed security guarantees.
On Russia’s wish list are measures that would limit military activities in the former Warsaw Pact and countries of the former Soviet Union that joined NATO after the Cold War.
But on Wednesday in Kiev, Blinken said he would not make such a formal response during Friday’s talks with Lavrov in Geneva. Rather, it is up to Russia to allay fears of possible expansion plans.
Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed forces in two breakaway regions in the east since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
More than 13,000 people have been killed and the recent influx of Russian troops has also shaken its Baltic neighbors.
Washington said on Thursday it had approved requests from the Baltic states to ship US-made weapons to Ukraine.
Britain also announced it would send defensive weapons to Ukraine as part of a program to help the country secure its borders.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a speech in Sydney on Friday, will warn Russian President Vladimir Putin against making strategic mistakes and being dragged into a “horrible quagmire” if Russia invades Ukraine, according to prepared words.