Western countries sought to project unity over Ukraine in a flurry of diplomatic efforts on Thursday (20 January), after US President Joe Biden suggested allies were split over how to react to any ‘minor incursion’ from Russia.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted in both English and Ukrainian, in a clear reference to Biden’s remarks.
“I say this as the president of a great power,” he added.
Zelenskiy’s comment followed after Biden on Wednesday had said he expected Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch some kind of action, and appeared to suggest Washington and its allies might disagree over the response if Moscow stopped short of a major invasion.
Shortly after Biden’s news conference ended, the White House rowed back from any suggestion that a smaller-scale Russian military incursion would meet a weaker US response.
“If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
At the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron’s most recent calls for the EU to forge its own security pact with Russia has been perceived by some inside and outside the bloc as a break with US calls for unity amid ongoing efforts to halt a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell, speaking alongside Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly in Brussels, insisted that neither Biden nor Macron wouldn’t have said “nothing new, but important.”
“We are working together with the allies in order to be ready to implement an answer, which will be very costly for Russia if there is any kind of aggression against Ukraine. So, the wording of President Biden was exactly in the same direction in which we have been working,” Borrell said.
“About President Macron, I was there, and I think it’s also an important statement, but it’s part of what we have been saying since the beginning,” Borrell said, adding “that the Europeans have to be presenting their view on this issue, that nothing can be agreed about European security or the security in Europe without the participation of the Europeans.”
“And President Macron didn’t say that the Europeans were going to present their own proposals to the Russians,” Borrell said, though most EU diplomats that spoke to EURACTIV tend to disagree with this assessment.
The comments came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday was due to meet his counterparts from the ‘transatlantic Quad’ format – the UK, France and Germany – in Berlin, after having met high-ranking Ukrainian officials in Kyiv the day before, where he urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay on a “diplomatic and peaceful path.”
In an attempt of damage control, and speaking alongside German counterpart Annalena Baerbock after a bilateral meeting, Blinken said “no matter which path Russia chooses, it will find the United States, Germany, and our allies, united”.
Asked to clarify what action on the part of Russia would fall under a ‘minor incision’ and might thus be met with a milder reaction, Blinken said the US had made clear that “if Russian forces move over the Ukrainian border and commit further aggression against Ukraine, this will be met with a swift reaction”.
“That unity gives us strength, a strength which I must add, that Russia cannot match,” Blinken said. “It’s why we build voluntary alliances in the first place. It’s also why Russia recklessly seeks to divide us.”
He also added that talks between NATO allies and Russia had yielded things for both sides to consider, but added that “even as we are relentless in pursuing this diplomatic path, we will continue to make very clear that if Moscow chooses the path of further aggression, we will impose swift and massive costs.”
At the same time, Blinken added that Russia had “a lot of tools in its playbook” which would stop short of military action, such as hybrid attacks, destabilising action, or paramilitary tactics.
“We urgently demand that Russia takes steps towards de-escalation. Any further aggressive behaviour or aggression would result in serious consequences,” Baerbock told reporters in Berlin.
European and US officials say there are still strong financial measures that have not been tried but refrained from defining what specific actions by Russia would trigger what type of response.
“The US will continue to take the interests of our allies into account and work together actively”, Blinken stressed after the joint meeting with Baerbock, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and UK vice-minister James Cleverly.
Blinken, who is set to meet Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, said he will not present a formal response to Moscow’s European security demands, which have been branded as ‘non-starters by Washington, at those talks.
Nord Stream 2
Germany has, however, signalled that it could halt Nord Stream 2 that skirts Ukraine if Moscow invades, Blinken said.
“Gas is not flowing through Nord Stream 2 yet, which means the pipeline is leverage for Germany, the United States and our allies, not Russia,” Blinken said at Thursday’s news conference. “That is undoubtedly something Russia is weighing when making its next move.” he continued.
“We agreed to work together to support Ukraine’s energy security and prevent Russia from using gas as a weapon”, he told reporters.
The question of whether the pipeline could be halted in the case of further Russian aggression against Ukraine has also been contested within Germany’s coalition government.
Speaking after the bilateral meeting with Blinken, however, Baerbock confirmed both had underlined “that when sanctions are concerned, the subject of energy is to be counted among the possible options”.
“The German Chancellor, too, has expressed his position in this regard and said that all measures are on the table”, she added, saying nothing about this had changed.
“Secretary Blinken’s visit to Germany is part of a push to get NATO allies in line on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Kristine Berzina, senior fellow the German Marshall Fund said.
Over the past few days, Germany’s Chancellor Scholz and Foreign Minister Baerbock have explicitly put measures against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on the table if Russia acts further, Berzina said.
“Germany’s soft line on this pipeline has been a major worry in Washington. Greater alignment on Nord Stream 2 is a good sign at an exceptionally dangerous time, even if differences exist on other issues such as weapons for Ukraine,” she added.
As one step, Baerbock announced further plans to prepare potential talks in the so-called Normandy format between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.
Together with her French counterpart, Le Drian, Baerbock announced she would visit Ukraine again in the near future, including the Donbas region.
“I would like to underline once again that the Normandy format is one of the four most important formats of dialogue these days”, she added.
Blinken, for his part, vowed the US would “fully support” any future iterations of the format.
EU foreign ministers are slated to discuss the security situation in and around Ukraine in their regular meeting on Monday (20 January), with Blinken having been invited to join by EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell.