This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine “at any point,” the White House warned, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to Kyiv and Berlin for urgent talks aimed at heading off a possible new war in Ukraine.
With Russia massing an estimated 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders and a sizable new force being deployed for snap exercises in Belarus, alarms are sounding throughout Western capitals about the danger of a new, major conflict.
Last week, Russian diplomats met with top officials from the United States, NATO, and European nations, to discuss the sweeping demands Moscow has made, demands that amount to a major restructuring of Europe’s security architecture.
The talks yielded no breakthroughs, and that, plus belligerent rhetoric from Moscow, has alarmed Western officials.
“This is an extremely dangerous situation. We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on January 18. “I would say that’s more stark than we have been.”
Earlier, a senior State Department official told reporters that Russian forces in Belarus were “neither an exercise, nor normal troop movement. It is a show of strength designed to cause or give false pretext for a crisis as Russian plans for a possible invasion.”
After visiting Kyiv on January 19 and Berlin on January 20, Blinken is set to travel to Geneva for meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two diplomats spoke by phone on January 18.
Describing Blinken’s meeting with Lavrov, the official told reporters that it “suggests that perhaps diplomacy is not dead.”
“We want to test whether there’s an opportunity for a diplomatic off-ramp here, but we continue to prepare for a different outcome,” said the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I think it is still too early to tell if the Russian government is genuinely interested in diplomacy…if it is prepared to negotiate seriously in good faith, or whether it will use discussions as a pretext to claim that diplomacy didn’t address Moscow’s interest,” the official said.
While in Kyiv, Blinken is scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other top Ukrainian officials in a show of support.
In Berlin, Blinken will meet with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and also hold talks with officials from Britain and France.
The meetings will focus on “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine” including the allies’ “readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia,” according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Blinken’s “travel and consultations are part of the diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the tension caused by Russia’s military buildup and continued aggression against Ukraine,” Price said.
Russia’s deployment of forces along Ukraine’s border, and in the annexed region of Crimea, is one of the largest, unscheduled massing of forces since 2014, when Moscow first seized Crimea and sparked a war in eastern Ukraine.
The war has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.
The United States and its Western allies have warned of severe consequences for Moscow if Russia launches a new offensive in Ukraine.
There is growing concern in Washington that a possible Russian attack could come via Belarus, where strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka is clinging to power with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin following large-scale, popular protests against his brutal 27-year rule.
A second senior U.S. official told reporters that Lukashenka could seek to end Belarus’s stated neutrality and host Russian troops and weapons — including conventional and nuclear missiles — in order to remain in power.
“We know that Putin doesn’t give that support for free. It’s clear Russia is preying on Lukashenka’s vulnerability and calling in some of those IOUs,” the official said.
Moscow has denied any plans to attack Ukraine, and accused NATO of planning to admit Ukraine as a member of the alliance and to deploy offensive weaponry there.
In Moscow on January 18, Baerbock met Lavrov for talks on the same subject.
Lavrov said separately said that Russia would welcome U.S. diplomatic efforts and reiterated Russian accusations that Ukraine was “sabotaging” agreements aimed at ending the conflict.
The West has already imposed sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and its support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine in a war that that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.
After the talks, Baerbock said Germany was ready to defend fundamental values in the conflict with Russia over Ukraine, even if this means paying “a high economic price.”
During her visit to Kyiv the previous day, the German minister warned that “any further escalation would carry a high price for the Russian regime — economic, political and strategic.”
Amid growing domestic and international pressure on Berlin, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on January 18 that Germany was ready to discuss halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project intended to bring more Russian gas to Western Europe should Russia attack Ukraine.
The undersea pipeline, which is 95 percent complete, will bring more Russian gas to Western Europe. Opponents, including Washington, say it will make Berlin more dependent on Moscow.
“It is clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine,” Scholz told reporters, responding to a question after meeting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg said he had invited Russia and NATO allies to a series of meetings at the NATO-Russia Council to discuss ways to improve the security situation.