The United States and Russia have dug in their heels over Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border with no sign either will relent from entrenched positions that have raised fears of a Russian invasion and a new war in Europe.
In advance of critical talks Friday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the two sides appeared no closer to any compromise that might ease tensions and avert the threat of a Russian invasion.
Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive whatever difficulties come its way.
On a visit to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv on Wednesday, Blinken accused Russia of planning to reinforce the more than 100,000 troops it has deployed along the Ukrainian border and suggested that number could double “on relatively short order”.
Blinken did not elaborate, but Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to its ally Belarus, which also shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games next month.
Speaking during a news conference at the White House later on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden predicted Russia would make a move on Ukraine, saying it would pay dearly for a full-scale invasion – but suggesting there could be a lower cost for a “minor incursion.”
“My guess is he will move in,” Biden said of Putin at a news conference. “He has to do something.”
“Russia will be held accountable if it invades – and it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and what to not do, etcetera,” Biden said. “But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing … it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine.”
Biden’s comments injected uncertainty into how the West would respond in the face of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, prompting the White House later to seek to clarify what the president meant.
“If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
But cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics by Russia “will be met with “a decisive, reciprocal, and united response”, she added.
The Kremlin on Thursday denounced Biden for saying a “disaster” awaited Russia if it attacked Ukraine, stressing that it destabilised an already tense situation.
Statements like that, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “can facilitate the destabilisation of the situation.”
Blinken earlier had reiterated Washington’s demands for Russia to de-escalate the situation by removing its forces from the border area, something that Moscow has flatly refused to do.
The top US diplomat said he would not present a written response on Russia’s proposals to Lavrov in Geneva but promised “relentless diplomatic efforts to prevent renewed aggression and to promote dialogue and peace”.
Meanwhile, a top Russian diplomat said Moscow would not back down from its insistence that the US formally ban Ukraine from ever joining NATO and reduce its and the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine but that its demands for security guarantees were non-negotiable.
The US and its allies have said the Russian demands are non-starters, that Russia knows they are and that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using them in part to create a pretext for invading Ukraine.
The former Soviet republic aspires to join the alliance, a move that is not expected to take place in the foreseeable future.
The deadlock left little hope that Blinken and Lavrov’s meeting, which follows a series of inconclusive talks last week, will ease tensions that have been rising since last year but have soared in the past weeks with increased Russian military activity.
In Kyiv, Blinken urged Western nations to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. He also reassured Ukraine’s leader of NATO support while calling for Ukrainians to stand strong.
Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the US and its allies were steadfast in backing his country and its democratic aspirations against Russian attempts to incite division and discord through “relentless aggression”.
“Our strength depends on preserving our unity and that includes unity within Ukraine,” he told Zelenskyy. “I think one of Moscow’s longstanding goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that.”
The Biden administration had said earlier it was providing an additional $200m in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Blinken said more assistance is coming and that it would only increase should Russia invade.
Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the aid, which was approved in late December but not confirmed until Wednesday.
“This [military] support not only speaks to our strategic plans of Ukraine joining the alliance, but more importantly to the level of our military, our military supplies,” he said, referring to Kyiv’s desire to join NATO.
“Your visit is very important,” Zelenskyy said. “It underlines once again your powerful support of our independence and sovereignty.”
From Kyiv, Blinken plans a short trip to Berlin for talks with German and other European allies on Thursday before meeting with Lavrov.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid, reporting from Kyiv, said the locals she spoke to were “quite blase about the idea that a military escalation could happen anytime soon”.
“They think there is a lot of talk at the moment, a lot of fearmongering, but you don’t get the idea that there’s panic among people – certainly a bit of worry,” Abdel Hamid said.
“You don’t get this sense that there is mass panic about it. There’s no run to the supermarkets, people are going about their lives. Also, people do feel confident that this time the Ukrainian ministry is much stronger, it has received much training, it has received much military hardware; it is in a better position than it was in 2014.”
Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean Peninsula after the overthrow of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist armed uprising in eastern Ukraine.
More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between the Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland, called Donbas.