The White House says President Joe Biden has warned Ukraine’s president that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could take military action against Ukraine in February, as the United States sought an open UN Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis.
The news comes as the Kremlin likewise sounded a grim note on Thursday, saying it saw “little ground for optimism” in resolving the crisis after the US this week again rejected Russia’s main demands.
Russian officials said dialogue was still possible to end the crisis, but Biden again offered a stark warning amid growing concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin will give the go-ahead for a further invasion of Ukrainian territory in the not-so-distant future.
The White House said Biden’s comments to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call amplified concerns that administration officials have been making for some time.
“President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February,” White House National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne said.
“He has said this publicly and we have been warning about this for months.”
Earlier on Thursday, the US envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that the Biden administration wanted to discuss Russia’s “threatening behavior” towards Ukraine.
“Russia is engaging in other destabilising acts aimed at Ukraine, posing a clear threat to international peace and security and the UN Charter,” she said.
“This is not a moment to wait and see. The council’s full attention is needed now, and we look forward to direct and purposeful discussion on Monday.”
Relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated after Moscow deployed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine. The Kremlin has denied it plans to invade but last month demanded wide-ranging security guarantees, including assurances Ukraine never be allowed to join the US-led NATO military alliance.
As expected, the US and the Western alliance on Wednesday firmly rejected any concessions on Moscow’s main points, saying allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are non-negotiable.
The US did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, possibly offering a path to de-escalation.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that the response from the US – and a similar one from NATO – left “little ground for optimism”, but added that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue, it’s in the interests of both us and the Americans”.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also hinted at an opening for dialogue, saying the US response contained some elements that could lead to “the start of a serious talk on secondary issues”.
But Lavrov also emphasised that “the document contains no positive response on the main issue” – Moscow’s demands that NATO not expand and that the alliance refrain from deploying weapons that might threaten Russia.
All eyes are now on Putin, who will decide how Russia will respond amid fears that Europe could again be plunged into war. He had warned of unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West refused to heed the demands.
Biden to meet Germany’s new leader
Biden and new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are expected to discuss the Russian aggression towards Ukraine during a meeting next month in Washington, DC.
The one-on-one meeting will be Scholz’s first Oval Office meeting since he took over the German leadership in December.
Germany’s refusal to join the US and other NATO members in providing weapons to Ukraine has annoyed some allies and raised questions about Berlin’s resolve in standing up to Moscow.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her government is closely coordinating its policy with its allies, however, and the range of options Berlin will consider in the event of renewed Russian aggression includes action against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
The pipeline, which has not begun operation yet, was built to pump natural gas from Russia to Germany, but Berlin has gradually backed away from the project amid growing tensions with Moscow.
Baerbock said that while Germany has refused to supply weapons to Ukraine, it will continue to provide economic support to Kyiv. Experts said Germany’s position is partly rooted in its history of aggression during the 20th century.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said the German government would pressure Russia by imposing sanctions, and not by providing armaments to Ukraine.
“The German government has said it is prepared to take the consequences of refusing to switch on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline,” Kane said. “It’s going to cost them and the European economy a considerable amount of money. But the view here is that if the Russian gas supply was switched off completely that would also cost the Russian economy $200m a day.”
‘Intricate sequencing from White House’
During Biden’s phone call with Zelenskyy late on Thursday, he reaffirmed the US administration’s readiness to “respond decisively” to Russia if it invades Ukraine.
“He also underscored the commitment of the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said in a statement describing the call.
Had a long phone conversation with @POTUS. Discussed recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions for the future. Thanked President @JoeBiden for the ongoing military assistance. Possibilities for financial support to Ukraine were also discussed. pic.twitter.com/pAsQLYAuig
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) January 27, 2022
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv had seen Washington’s response before it was delivered to Moscow and had no objections. He tweeted it was “important that the US remains in close contact with Ukraine before and after all contacts with Russia”.
On a visit to Denmark, Kuleba emphasised his country’s need to strengthen its defences.
“This crisis is a moment of truth, and this is why we speak about weapons,” he said. “This is why we speak about economic sanctions. This is why we speak about the consolidated position of all of us, so that President Putin sees that there are no weak links in our defensive chain.”
The Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is due to arrive in Washington, DC, on Monday, where he is likely to discuss gas supplies to Europe’s biggest economy, Germany, in case Moscow crosses the border to invade Ukraine.
“And then on February 7, the German chancellor will be at the White House to talk about the common issues that they have,” said Al Jazeera correspondent Alan Fisher, adding that Ukraine will be high on the list and that Biden would brief Scholz about his talks with the Qatari emir.
Amid the tensions, thousands of Ukrainians expressed their resolve to stand up to the Russian pressure under the hashtag #UkrainiansWillResist on Twitter and Facebook. “No one will force Ukrainians to accept the Kremlin ultimatum,” wrote Andrii Levus, who initiated the campaign.
Russia has launched a series of military drills involving motorised infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus.
Ukraine’s interior ministry organised training on acting in emergency situations, with an emphasis on dealing with explosives.
NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the US ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe.
While concerns about a possible Russian attack linger, a separatist conflict simmers in Ukraine.
Following the 2014 overthrow of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed an armed operation in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed more than 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled.
Since the conflict began, Russia has been accused of sending troops and weapons to the separatists, which it has denied.
On Thursday, Peskov would not comment on a proposal from the Kremlin’s main political party, United Russia, which suggested that Moscow respond to the delivery of Western weapons to Ukraine by sending arms to the rebels. He added that Putin is aware of the proposal but had no immediate reaction.