This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The United States and its allies are stepping up pressure on Moscow as Russia kicked off military drills near Ukraine involving thousands of troops and dozens of warplanes amid persisting fears that Moscow would invade its neighbor.
The West has been taking steps to counter Moscow’s buildup of an estimated 100,000 or more troops near the border with Ukraine, with U.S. President Joe Biden consulting with allied European leaders and the Pentagon announcing it was putting a force of up to 8,500 U.S. soldiers on “heightened alert” for potential deployment to reinforce NATO’s presence in the region.
Several members of the alliance, including Denmark, Spain, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands, are sending fighter jets and warships to Eastern Europe to bolster defenses in the area.
Speaking to reporters on January 25, Biden said he has “no intention” of sending U.S. troops into Ukraine, but again warned Russia of severe sanctions if Moscow orders an attack.
Asked whether he would consider imposing economic sanctions personally targeting President Vladimir Vladimir Putin, Biden said: “Yes. I would see that.”
The U.S. president said Russia “continues to build forces along Ukraine’s border,” and an attack “would be the largest invasion since World War II” given the massive troop presence near the border. Such an event would “change the world,” he added.
Earlier, senior U.S. administration officials said the United States and allies were discussing banning exports to Russia of certain software and technology critical for artificial intelligence, quantum computing, defense, aerospace, and other key sectors.
“The export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard,” one official said.
In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament that sanctions against Moscow would be “heavier than anything we’ve ever done before.”
In a show of European unity in Berlin,, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron called for an easing of the crisis.
“We…expect clear steps from Russia that will contribute to a de-escalation of the situation,” Scholz said.
Macron, who said he would talk with Putin by phone on January 28, reiterated that “if there is aggression, there will be retaliation and the cost will be very high.”
The Russian military earlier said it had launched exercises involving some 6,000 troops and at least 60 fighter jets in the Rostov and Krasnodar regions near Ukraine and in the Moscow-annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Russian news agencies quoted Russia’s Southern Military district describing the live-fire maneuvers as a combat readiness check shortly after spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the United States is escalating tensions” and warned that the Kremlin was watching “these U.S. actions with great concern.”
There was no indication of how long the Russian exercises would last.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged his compatriots in a televised video address to stay calm and said work was under way to bring about a meeting between himself and the leaders of Russia, Germany, and France.
“There are no rose-colored glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple…. But there is hope,” he said.
Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told parliament that “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” that Russia is preparing to invade imminently, saying that its troops have not formed what he called a battle group that could force its way through the border.
“No need to have your bags packed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Canada said it was withdrawing the families of its diplomats stationed in Kyiv because of “the ongoing Russian military buildup and destabilizing activities in and around Ukraine,” following similar moves by the United States and Britain.
“We have decided to temporarily withdraw Canadian Embassy staff’s children under 18 years of age and family members accompanying them,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The United States and NATO have told Putin to withdraw from Ukraine’s borders, warning that a Russian attack will trigger damaging economic sanctions, as well as a beefed-up NATO presence in Eastern Europe.
A U.S. administration official said Washington was working with Brussels and other partners to create contingency plans should Russia decide to cut off gas to Europe.
Russia supplies about 35 percent of Europe’s natural gas needs, which are especially acute during the winter months.
European natural gas prices are already near record highs amid tight supply. A Russian cutoff could have a severe impact on the European economy.
The United States is speaking with countries in the Middle East and North Africa about sending more supplies to Europe, another U.S. official said.
The United States is also seeking to ramp up shipments of liquefied natural gas to Europe, the official added.
However, members of the European Union have starkly differing approaches and ties to Russia, with Germany’s new government coming under particular criticism from Kyiv over its refusal to send defensive weapons to Ukraine.
Germany, the EU’s strongest economy, has also been hesitating over one of the harshest economic sanctions under discussion — cutting Moscow from the global SWIFT payments system.
Speaking at the joint press conference with Macron, Scholz said: “We…expect clear steps from Russia that contribute to a de-escalation of the situation, and we all agree that military aggression would have serious consequences.”
The French government earlier announced that Russian and Ukrainian officials would meet, along with French and German counterparts, in Paris on January 26 to try to find a way out of the impasse.
Russia, which seized Crimea in 2014 and is backing separatists in eastern Ukraine, denies any intention of invading the former Soviet republic and accuses the United States and its allies of stoking tensions.
The Kremlin has used its menacing troop buildup to issue a list of demands to redraw the security architecture in Europe.
Four rounds of high-level diplomacy this month between Russia and the West failed to reach a breakthrough.
Moscow wants NATO to abandon any prospect of Ukraine one day joining the alliance and seeks a major pullback of the alliance’s forces from Eastern Europe.
Washington and its allies say many Russian demands are nonstarters, but they have shown a willingness to discuss arms control, missile deployments, and confidence-building measures.