The United States and its European allies are discussing possible reactions if Russian President Vladimir Putin takes military action against Ukraine, including new sanctions on Moscow and more security assistance to Kiev.
Senior US officials have raised the idea of a package of measures in discussions with their European counterparts over the past week, telling them that the Biden administration is already preparing a list of options to counter potential moves by Russia, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Planning is at an early stage even within the United States, and will require further discussions before seeking the support of other nations. But it comes after US officials raised the alarm that Russia may be considering a possible invasion of Ukraine as tensions flare between Moscow and the European Union over everything from migrants to energy supplies. The Kremlin denies any such intention.
The effort also aims to steer Putin away from further aggression against Ukraine by making it clear that there will be a strong, coordinated response, two of the people said. They declined to say what might be included, but with sanctions already severe on many parts of the Russian economy including the defense and finance sectors, one area left to attack could be energy. A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Russian forces on the border of Ukraine
Putin has stopped large numbers of troops near the Ukrainian border in the past, including earlier this year when he sent more than 100,000 soldiers, as well as tanks, warplanes and warships, to Crimea and other areas. He resisted for weeks as Kiev and Western countries called on him to calm down, before withdrawing troops in late April.
The recent frictions come against a broader background. Not only are troops mobilized again (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that Moscow is “concentrating nearly 100,000 troops” near the border), but record-high gas prices are making Europe vulnerable to Russian generosity over supplies. European Union members, including Poland, have also accused Russia of encouraging a refugee crisis as its ally Belarus moves migrants toward the bloc.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Putin he was defending Ukraine’s sovereignty in a phone call on Monday that also addressed the migrant crisis. The Kremlin said Putin criticized the government in Kiev for its recent use of a drone against Russian-backed separatists, and condemned recent US and allied naval exercises in the Black Sea as “provocative”.
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Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Russian leader twice in several days to discuss tensions. US President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed Ukraine’s reinforcements when they met in Washington last week.
“We see an extraordinary concentration of forces and know that Russia was ready to use these kinds of military capabilities before to carry out aggressive actions against Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday. “This military buildup also reduces any warning time between making a decision in Russia before they can take aggressive military action.”
Russia rejects fears of invading Ukraine
The Kremlin on Friday dismissed talk of a possible invasion as “baseless”, saying troop movements on its territory are an internal matter. People close to the Kremlin said Putin aims to send a clear message to the West that Moscow will not tolerate any further expansion of military ties between NATO and Ukraine, but is not seeking a broader war.
The spring crisis at the border eased after Biden called Putin and offered a summit in June. But Ukrainian officials say the Kremlin has not withdrawn all the forces it mustered at the time.
“After recent military exercises on the border, Russian forces have withdrawn,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters after a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday. But he said the Russian forces had not removed their equipment, “so that they could deploy quickly because the heavy stuff was already there.”
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The United States in the spring developed a similar package of potential countermeasures to those now being discussed, but they have not been implemented, according to two of the people. One person added that the European Union tasked its Foreign Affairs Department with drafting options earlier this year to respond to any further Russian moves, but that those efforts have stalled.
This time around, the United States is preparing to share more information with allies that has raised its concerns, to galvanize support for a joint response, according to two of the people.
Moscow warned of the consequences of the invasion
After meeting with their Ukrainian counterpart in Brussels on Monday, the foreign ministers of France and Germany warned in a joint statement that “any new attempt to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity will have dire consequences.”
“We agreed to make certain contacts with Russia to discourage it from any aggressive moves,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
The United States sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow in early November to express its concerns about the military buildup. He spoke by phone with Putin, but there was no clear indication of a change of direction from the Kremlin.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine first exploded in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and backed a separatist rebellion in the country’s east. This led to sweeping US and European sanctions, but the conflict continued, killing more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine.
–With assistance from John Follain, Daryna Krasnolutska, and Kitty Donaldson