WASHINGTON: The United States upped its threat assessment of a potentially imminent Russian attack against Ukraine on Tuesday, warning before talks between the top US and Russian diplomats that “no option” would be off the table in the subsequent Western response.
“We believe we’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “I would say that’s more stark than we have been.”
Adding to the tensions, Russia and Ukraine’s neighbour Belarus launched snap military exercises on Tuesday.
The Belarusian defence ministry said it was hosting the drills because of the continuing “aggravation” of military tensions, including on its western and southern borders.
Ukraine is located south of Belarus, and east of Nato and EU member Poland.
Neither Moscow nor Minsk has disclosed the number of troops involved, but video published by Belarus showed military vehicles including tanks being unloaded from trains.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders, diplomatic efforts picked up to avert war on Europe’s eastern fringe.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Ukraine for talks on Wednesday, with subsequent stops in Berlin to meet European allies on Thursday, and Geneva to sit down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday.
Russia insists it has no plans to invade Ukraine, where in 2014 it already seized one province and backed separatist rebels in another region.
However, Moscow’s massive build-up of offensive weaponry and troops leaves little doubt that at least a potential assault is being prepared as a way to back the Kremlin’s broader aim of preventing pro-West Ukraine from leaving the Russian sphere of influence.
Among Russia’s demands is a pledge from the Nato alliance that it never offer Ukraine membership -- something Nato calls a non-starter.
The latest US comments appeared to reflect an increasingly grim view of the standoff.
Putin “clearly is building up a force posture there that provides him multiple options”, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “We still don’t believe that he’s made a final decision.”
Psaki blamed the Russian leader, saying “President Putin has created this crisis” and warned again that unprecedented economic sanctions would follow a Russian attack against Ukraine.
“No option is off the table” when it comes to sanctions, she said, warning of an “extremely dangerous situation”. Psaki stressed that this could include shelving the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
The pipeline, which has been completed but not commissioned, is seen as an important part of Europe’s energy supply network, but also a crown jewel in Moscow’s export capabilities.
“Our view continues to be that stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a credible piece we hold over Russia,” Psaki said.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2022