Moscow will face “serious consequences” if it invades Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Russian counterpart point-blank Thursday as tensions rise in Eastern Europe and the Biden administration faces one of its thorniest international tests.
Mr. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met briefly behind closed doors during a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Stockholm. The tense diplomatic standoff comes as tens of thousands of Russian troops remain gathered along the country’s border with Ukraine and as some foreign policy analysts warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin may see this as his last window to keep Ukraine from cementing security and economic ties with the West by using military force — or at least the direct threat of it.
As the U.S. and its NATO allies seek to stave off war, Mr. Blinken pushed Moscow to abide by the Minsk agreements, a 2014 pact aimed at ending the fighting in the disputed Donbas region of Ukraine, the site of regular clashes between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow.
Mr. Blinken said the U.S. seeks a stable relationship with Russia but warned that any action in Ukraine would force America’s hand.
“We have deep concerns about Russia’s plans for renewed aggression against Ukraine. That would move us in exactly the opposite direction, and it’s simply not in anyone’s interest,” Mr. Blinken said during brief public remarks before his meeting with Mr. Lavrov. “We have a strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
“The best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy and … full implementation of the Minsk agreements, with Russia pulling back its forces,” he said. “The United States is willing to facilitate that, but — and again, in the spirit of being clear and candid, which is the best thing to do — if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.”
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Speaking in South Korea on Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the U.S. and its allies will coordinate a global response to any Russian military aggression.
But it’s unclear just how far the U.S. and Europe may be willing to go. International condemnation and threats of economic sanctions failed to prevent Mr. Putin from taking over Crimea in 2014, nor have those same measures stopped a string of major cyberattacks by Russian-backed hackers against U.S. and other foreign targets.
Mr. Putin has said increased Western support for Kyiv, including NATO membership down the line, would be a “red line” Moscow would not tolerate. Mr. Lavrov said Thursday that Moscow sees the current crisis as part of the broader issue of keeping Ukraine away from NATO and firmly in Russia‘s orbit.
“I have no doubts that the only way out of today’s crisis, which is indeed quite tense, is actually to seek the balance of interests, and I hope this is what we are going to do today,” Mr. Lavrov said just before his meeting with Mr. Blinken.
“The fact that everyone is talking about the escalation of tensions in Europe on the border between Russia and Ukraine — well, you know very well how we treat this,” he said. “We … do not want any conflicts, but if our NATO partners have stated that no one has a right to dictate to a country that would like to join NATO whether it can do or not, we can say that every country is able to define its own interests to guarantee their security.”
Mr. Lavrov added that NATO’s expansion “will infringe upon security.”
NATO leaders have made clear in recent months that the organization believes the time is right to bring Ukraine further into the fold, even though such a strategy clearly irks Moscow.
“We should provide more support, more training, more capacity-building, help them implement reforms, fight corruption, build their security and defense institutions,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during an October speech at Georgetown University.
“We need to establish there is a lot in between nothing and full membership,” he said of Ukraine and other neighboring nations.
Some foreign policy specialists say the fact that NATO and Ukraine continue to inch toward one another despite the takeover of Crimea and fighting in Donbas has convinced Mr. Putin to get more aggressive.
“The first reason he‘s escalated is his 7 1/2-year war in … Donbas is a failure. That war was undertaken to push Ukraine‘s foreign policy in a direction that Moscow would approve of and he‘s had zero results,” John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Thursday.
“Instead you have a stalemate … which favors neither Russia nor Ukraine, but that means it’s a victory for Ukraine because it gets to maintain its foreign policy and independence,” he said during a virtual Atlantic Council forum. “The idea is to intimidate Ukraine.”