The troop movements, coupled with statements from Moscow that it was unsatisfied with meetings held with U.S., European and NATO officials last week to address its security concerns, have had some officials in Washington fearing the worst.
“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday. The Biden administration has accused Moscow of sending operatives into Ukraine to prepare a “false flag operation” to use as a pretext for an invasion. Russia has denied the charge.
Despite the troubling developments, a senior State Department official said the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov in the Swiss city indicated that “diplomacy is not dead.”
“We are prepared to continue to engage with Russia on security issues in a meaningful, reciprocal dialogue,” said the official, who spoke to reporters in a phone briefing on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the department. “We will see this Friday if Russia is prepared to do the same.”
Russia has placed some 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine alongside tanks and heavy weaponry. Russia has denied that it is preparing a military invasion but has said the West must take into account its security demands, which include the provision of legally binding assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will not become members of the NATO military alliance.
The Biden administration has refused to consider that demand, calling NATO’s “open door” policy sacrosanct despite widespread doubts that Ukraine will ever meet the military alliance’s criteria for membership.
U.S. officials are now left guessing if their decision to reject what Russia describes as its core demands will precede what some military analysts say could be the largest ground war in Europe in decades. Despite Washington’s vast spying apparatus, bolstered by satellites and surveillance planes, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appetite for an invasion remains unknown.
“That’s a question only the Russians can answer for you, but their actions show to us that they are making moves that would suggest that they have plans to invade Ukraine,” said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, at a Washington Post Live event.
Blinken left Tuesday for Ukraine, where he will meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top officials and discuss “where we think there are opportunities to have meaningful conversations with the Russians,” said the State Department official.
From Kyiv, Blinken will fly to Berlin to meet his French, German and British counterparts to discuss a response to a possible Russian military incursion.
In Germany, Blinken is expected to address the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will pump billions of cubic meters of gas from Russia to Europe each year — once it’s switched on.
Despite U.S. pressure, Germany’s newly formed coalition government, led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has offered mixed and contradictory messaging on whether the future of the project should be linked to any potential Russian aggression.
But when pressed on the matter during a news conference Tuesday, Scholz indicated that the pipeline could be used as leverage against Russia if it was to invade Ukraine.
“It is crystal clear that Russia will have to pay a high price should there be a military intervention against Ukraine or in Ukraine,” Scholz said.
From Berlin, Blinken will fly to Geneva to discuss with Lavrov “if there is a possible diplomatic off-ramp to this crisis,” said the State Department official.
It is unclear if the United States will provide a written response to Russia on its key demands from last week, something Moscow continues to insist on to resolve the standoff.
“[We] are expecting their answers to our proposals, as we have been promised, in order to continue the talks,” Lavrov said during a joint news conference in Moscow with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
The State Department official dodged a question on whether Washington will provide a written response, saying only that the United States remains prepared to engage Russia on “security issues.”
On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reinforced messages from the White House that Russian military action could be imminent.
“The risk of conflict is real,” he said.
He also reiterated the U.S. insistence that some of Russia’s demands are nonstarters. “NATO allies are ready to engage and listen to concerns Russia may have,” he said, citing issues including arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation. “But we will not compromise on core principles.”
Russian troops and military hardware began arriving in Belarus on Monday for military drills called “Allies Resolve” conducted near Belarus’s western border.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the drills were to refine how Russia and Belarus would respond to external threats and would involve a dozen Su-35 fighter jets and several air-defense units. He said the exercises are expected to take place Feb. 10-20.
Ukraine has said Russia could stage an attack from any direction, including Belarus, a longtime ally that the Kremlin recently reinforced following a wave of demonstrations against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko following elections widely criticized as fraudulent.
The State Department is also warning of an incursion from Belarus.
“The timing is notable and, of course, raises concerns that Russia could intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises in order, potentially, to attack Ukraine from the north,” said a second State Department official. “Belarus’s complicity in such an attack would be completely unacceptable.”
Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.
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