Biden warns of personal sanctions against Putin over Ukraine
US seeks to protect Europe’s energy supplies if Russia invades, while US president threatens Russian counterpart with sanctions.
Western leaders have stepped up preparations for any Russian military action in Ukraine, with the United States focusing on how to protect energy supplies and US President Joe Biden saying he would consider imposing direct sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Tensions remained high after NATO said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing Eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to a Russian troop build-up near its border with Ukraine.
Russia, which has denied planning an attack, said it was watching with “great concern”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow’s line that the crisis is being driven by US and NATO actions, not the Russian troop build-up.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a televised video address on Tuesday evening, urged his compatriots to stay calm and said work was under way to bring about a meeting between him and the leaders of Russia, Germany and France.
“There are no rose-coloured glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple … But there is hope,” he said.
The US and the European Union have threatened economic sanctions if Russia were to launch an invasion and Western leaders have said unity is paramount, though differences have emerged among European nations about how best to respond.
Biden repeated on Tuesday that there were no plans to send US troops to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, but said he would consider imposing direct sanctions on Putin and that there would be “enormous consequences” if Russia were to invade.
Reporters asked Biden if he would see himself personally sanctioning Putin if he invaded Ukraine.
“Yes,” he said. “I would see that.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged European allies to be ready to deploy sanctions as soon as there was an incursion.
“It is absolutely vital that … the West is united now, because it is our unity now that will be much more effective in deterring any Russian aggression,” he told parliament on Tuesday.
He said the UK was discussing the possibility of banning Russia from the Swift global payments system with the United States, one of many potential measures to punish Moscow if it launches an offensive.
In Washington, senior Biden administration officials said the US was in talks with major energy-producing countries and companies around the world about a potential diversion of supplies to Europe if Russia invades Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters on a call, the officials did not name the countries or companies involved in discussions to protect supplies to Europe but said they included a broad range of suppliers, including sellers of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
“We’ve been working to identify additional volumes of non-Russian natural gas from various areas of the world; from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States,” a senior administration official said, on condition of anonymity.
“Correspondingly, we’re … in discussions with major natural gas producers around the globe to understand their capacity and willingness to temporarily surge natural gas output and to allocate these volumes to European buyers.”
The EU depends on Russia for approximately a third of its gas supplies. Any interruptions to Russia’s gas supply to Europe would exacerbate an existing energy crisis caused by shortages.
“To ensure Europe is able to make it through the winter and spring, we expect to be prepared to ensure alternative supplies covering a significant majority of the potential shortfall,” the official said.
Russia has tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine and is demanding security guarantees from the West, including a promise by NATO never to admit Ukraine. Moscow sees the former Soviet republic as a buffer between Russia and NATO countries.
In a sign of concern that an attack may come soon, Canada said on Tuesday that it was temporarily withdrawing families of its diplomats in Ukraine and Sweden’s foreign ministry said it was advising against all non-essential travel to Ukraine, and all travel to Crimea and two regions in eastern Ukraine.
The US Department of State has said it is ordering diplomats’ family members to leave and the UK has said it is withdrawing some staff and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv.
The US has committed more than $650m of security assistance to Ukraine in the past year and more than $2.7bn in total since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.
A US plane carrying military equipment and munitions landed in Kyiv on Tuesday, the third shipment of a $200m security package to shore up Ukraine.
The US Department of Defence said on Monday about 8,500 US troops had been put on heightened alert and were awaiting orders to deploy to the region, should Russia invade Ukraine.
On Tuesday, the Russian military announced it was conducting new drills involving 6,000 troops near Ukraine and within the Crimea region. The drills included firing exercises with fighter jets, bombers, anti-aircraft systems and ships from the Black Sea and Caspian fleets, the defence ministry said.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based independent defence and military analyst, said the continuing crisis is creating “fear” among many Russian citizens.
“Real confrontation with the West, and a possible war with Ukraine, is not what the people really want,” Felgenhauer told Al Jazeera from the Russian capital.
“There is an effect of kind of rallying around the flag in a time of crisis, but there is a lot of fear, people are afraid of war … that’s obvious, and many hope this is just a kind of … high-power stake game, that this is brinkmanship and there will be no war.”
So far, NATO has about 4,000 troops in multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units.