US President Joe Biden says he is preparing a “comprehensive” plan to make it difficult for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, as the two leaders are expected to speak in the coming days amid rising tensions.
The United States is preparing “the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do”, Biden told reporters at the White House on Friday.
“That’s in play right now,” Biden said, adding that he has not yet spoken directly with Putin amid the mounting crisis.
US and Russian officials have said a conversation between the leaders may be arranged soon.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, citing intelligence reports, warned earlier on Friday that Russia has placed more than 94,000 soldiers near Ukraine’s borders and may be gearing up for a large-scale military offensive at the end of January.
The military build-up has fuelled mounting concerns and warnings from Ukraine, as well as from top US officials and their NATO allies.
Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was considering “significant aggressive moves” against Ukraine and warned that the US would respond with “high-scale economic measures” should the Russian government choose a “path of confrontation”.
After a meeting in Sweden with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, Blinken reiterated his warning that Russia would suffer “severe costs and consequences” should it invade Ukraine.
“It’s now on Russia to de-escalate the current tensions by reversing the recent troop buildup, returning forces to normal peacetime positions and refraining from further intimidation and attempts to destabilise Ukraine,” he said.
For his part, Lavrov said the US has threatened new sanctions, but suggested the effort would not be effective. “If the new ‘sanctions from hell’ come, we will respond,” the foreign minister said. “We can’t fail to respond.”
In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists seized a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine, igniting a conflict that continues to simmer to this day.
Russian officials have previously said Moscow’s posture towards Ukraine is purely defensive and accused Kyiv of plotting to recapture by force areas held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have denied the accusation.
Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, said on Friday that Kyiv would not do anything to provoke a Russian attack but was ready to fight back if Moscow invaded.
Putin warned at a forum in Moscow on November 30 that any expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine was a red line for Russia. Moscow has repeatedly warned the West against arming Ukraine.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Russia and the US had a tentative date and time for a video summit between Putin and Biden in the coming days, but that Moscow was waiting for Washington to finalise it.
A US official did not confirm a date but told the Reuters news agency that the call is likely to happen as soon as next week.
Meanwhile, Biden said on Friday that he has been in regular contact with European and Ukrainian leaders amid a flurry of diplomatic action as tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate.
“My secretary of state and national security adviser have been engaged extensively,” he said.
Biden and Putin met in June in Geneva, Switzerland for their first in-person summit since the US president took office in January. In a three-hour series of meetings, they agreed to launch a bilateral dialogue on “strategic stability” to reduce the risks of conflict between the two countries.
Biden also said at that time that he had urged Putin to respect human rights and political freedoms in Russia and expressed an “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”, among other things.