The White House says U.S. President Joe Biden warned Ukraine’s president Thursday that there is a “distinct possibility” Russia could take military action against Ukraine in February. The Kremlin likewise sounded a grim note, saying it saw “little ground for optimism” in resolving the crisis after the U.S. this week again rejected Russia’s main demands.
Russian officials said dialogue was still possible to end the crisis, but Biden again offered a stark warning amid growing concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin will give the go-ahead for a further invasion of Ukrainian territory in the not-so-distant future.
The White House said Biden’s comments to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call amplified concerns that administration officials have been making for some time.
“President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said. “He has said this publicly and we have been warning about this for months.”
Tensions building for weeks
Tensions have soared in recent weeks, as the United States and its NATO allies expressed concern that a buildup of about 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine signalled that Moscow planned to invade its ex-Soviet neighbour. Russia denies having any such designs — and has laid out a series of demands it says will improve security in Europe.
But as expected, the U.S. and the Western alliance firmly rejected any concessions on Moscow’s main points Wednesday, refusing to permanently ban Ukraine from joining NATO and saying allied deployments of troops and military equipment in eastern Europe are non-negotiable.
The U.S. did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, possibly offering a path to de-escalation.
But, as it has done repeatedly for the past several weeks, Washington also warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine. In addition to penalties targeting Russian people and key economic sectors, several senior U.S. officials said Thursday with certainty that Germany would not allow a newly constructed gas pipeline to begin operations in the event of an incursion.
All eyes are now on Putin, who will decide how Russia will respond amid fears Europe could again be plunged into war.
U.S. reiterates support
In the meantime, Biden spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskyy on Thursday to reiterate American and allied support, including recent deliveries of U.S. military aid.
Biden warned Zelenskyy that the U.S. believed there was a high degree of likelihood that Russia could invade when the ground freezes and Russian forces could attack Ukrainian territory from north of Kyiv, according to two people familiar with the conversation who were not authorized to comment publicly.
Had a long phone conversation with <a href=”https://twitter.com/POTUS?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@POTUS</a>. Discussed recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions for the future. Thanked President <a href=”https://twitter.com/JoeBiden?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@JoeBiden</a> for the ongoing military assistance. Possibilities for financial support to Ukraine were also discussed. <a href=”https://t.co/pAsQLYAuig”>pic.twitter.com/pAsQLYAuig</a>
Military experts have said Russia may be waiting for optimal ground conditions to move heavy equipment into Kyiv as part of any invasion. Eight years ago, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in late February.
Zelenskyy tweeted that he and Biden also discussed the possibility of additional financial support for Ukraine.
The White House said Biden told Zelenskyy he was “exploring additional macroeconomic support to help Ukraine’s economy” as it comes under pressure as a result of Russia’s military buildup.
Meanwhile, the United States announced that the UN Security Council will hold an open meeting Monday on what U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called Russia’s “threatening behaviour.”
She said the deployment of more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border and other destabilizing acts pose “a clear threat to international peace and security and the UN Charter.”
Continued dialogue possible?
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier that the response from the U.S. — and a similar one from NATO — left “little ground for optimism.” But he added that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue, it’s in the interests of both us and the Americans.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was circumspect when asked whether the Biden administration saw a sliver of hope in that the Russians said they would keep communications open even as they said that they lacked optimism..
“We don’t know if the Russians are playing games on diplomacy. We hope not,” Psaki said.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. response contained some elements that could lead to “the start of a serious talk on secondary issues,” but emphasized that “the document contains no positive response on the main issue.”
Those are Moscow’s demands that NATO not expand and that the alliance refrain from deploying weapons that might threaten Russia.
Lavrov said top officials will submit proposals to Putin. Peskov said the Russian reaction would come soon.
The evasive official comments reflect the fact that it is Putin who will single-handedly determine Russia’s next moves.