The United States will hit Russia with its harshest economic sanctions yet if President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, the top US diplomat has said.
In the strongest US warning yet about the crisis, Anthony Blinken voiced deep concern about a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian forces around Ukraine coupled with a more than ten-fold spike in disinformation, falsely painting the Ukrainian government as the aggressor.
The same blend of military power and fake news spread online took place in the run up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine.
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“In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up planning for potential military action in Ukraine, including positioning tens of thousands of additional combat forces near the Ukrainian border,” the US secretary of state said on Wednesday, following a meeting with NATO foreign ministers in the Baltic state of Latvia.
“We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past,” he said.
Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 but denies aggressive intent in the current standoff, claiming it is responding to threatening behaviour by NATO and Kiev.
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President Putin, speaking in Moscow, said Russia wanted serious negotiations with the United States and its allies to extract legal guarantees that would rule out any further NATO moves to the east and the deployment of weapons systems close to Russia.
But Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, made clear any attempt by Moscow to restrict the choices of an independent country like Ukraine – which has requested to join the alliance – was unacceptable.
“Russia has no veto, Russia as no say and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbours,” he said, during a news conference in the Latvian capital of Riga.
Mr Blinken is due to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, at the sidelines of another international meeting taking place in Stockholm on Thursday.
The US diplomat said while Mr Putin was putting in place the capacity to launch a military attack on Ukraine, it was not yet known if a decision had been taken to invade.
He also gave an indication of the diplomatic activity going on behind the scenes to de-escalate tensions, confirming that Bill Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had held a rare meeting with President Putin in Moscow last month.
Mr Blinken said there was “tremendous solidarity” within the 30-member NATO alliance in willingness to pursue strong measures if Russia does choose to move again on Ukraine.
“Should Russia reject diplomacy and reinvade Ukraine, we will be prepared to act,” he said.