The United States warned Moscow yesterday of damaging sanctions, including measures personally targeting Vladimir Putin, as Russian combat troops massing around Ukraine launched new exercises.
Tension appeared to be only increasing, with the White House saying the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine “remains imminent.”
Warning that would prompt “enormous consequences” and even “change the world,” President Joe Biden said he would consider adding direct sanctions on Putin to a raft of measures being drawn up.
“Yes. I would see that,” Biden said when asked by reporters in Washington about targeting Putin, whom opponents have long accused of holding gigantic, secret wealth.
A senior US official laid out economic sanctions “with massive consequences” that go far beyond previous measures implemented in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region, warning that “the gradualism of the past is out.”
New measures would include restrictions on exports of high-tech US equipment in the artificial intelligence, quantum computing and aerospace sectors, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“What we’re talking about are sophisticated technologies that we design and produce,” and cutting them off would hit Putin’s “strategic ambitions to industrialise his economy quite hard,” the official said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed the threat, saying sanctions would be “heavier than anything we’ve ever done.”
In a bid to break the growing tension, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would talk by telephone with Putin on Friday, seeking “clarification” on Moscow’s intentions.
Western leaders stepped up preparations for any Russian military action in Ukraine yesterday, with the United States focusing on how to protect energy supplies and Britain urging other European nations to get economic sanctions ready.
Tensions remained high after Nato said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to a Russian troop build-up near its border with Ukraine.
Russia, which denies planning an attack, said it was watching with “great concern”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow’s line that the crisis is being driven by US and Nato actions, not the Russian troop build-up.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a televised video address yesterday evening, urged his compatriots to stay calm and said work was underway to bring about a meeting between him and the leaders of Russia, Germany and France.
“There are no rose-coloured glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple.... But there is hope,” he said.
The United States and the European Union have threatened economic sanctions if Russia launches an invasion and Western leaders say unity is paramount, though differences have emerged among European nations over how best to respond.
“It is absolutely vital that... the West is united now, because it is our unity now that will be much more effective in deterring any Russian aggression,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament, urging “our European friends” to be ready to deploy sanctions as soon as there was any incursion.
He said Britain was discussing the possibility of banning Russia from the Swift global payments system with the United States, one of many potential measures to punish Moscow if it launches an offensive.
In Washington, senior Biden administration officials said the United States was in talks with major energy-producing countries and companies around the world over a potential diversion of supplies to Europe if Russia invades Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters on a call, the officials did not name the countries or companies involved in discussions to protect supplies to Europe but said they included a broad range of suppliers, including sellers of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
“We’ve been working to identify additional volumes of non- Russian natural gas from various areas of the world; from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States,” a senior administration official said, on condition of anonymity.
The EU depends on Russia for around a third of its gas supplies. Any interruptions to its Russian imports would exacerbate an existing energy crisis caused by shortages.
Russia has tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine and is demanding security guarantees from the West, including a promise by Nato never to admit Ukraine. Moscow sees the former Soviet republic as a buffer between Russia and Nato countries.
Political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are due to meet in Paris today under the so-called ‘Normandy format’ to seek ways of ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv’s forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Scholz defended Germany’s refusal to follow other Western countries in sending Kyiv lethal weapons to defend itself against a possible Russian invasion, citing historical reasons for Berlin’s caution. The tensions over Ukraine have been felt on financial markets and the price of oil in recent days. An escalated conflict between Russia and Ukraine would be likely to further increase energy costs for many countries, keeping headline inflation rates elevated for longer, said Gita Gopinath, First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.
The United States has committed more than $650mn of security assistance to Ukraine in the past year and more than $2.7bn in total since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
A US plane carrying military equipment and munitions landed in Kyiv yesterday, the third shipment of a $200mn security package to shore up Ukraine.
The US Department of Defense said on Monday about 8,500 US troops had been put on heightened alert and were awaiting orders to deploy to the region, should Russia invade Ukraine.
However, the White House reiterated yesterday that there were no plans to send US troops to Ukraine, which is not a Nato member.
So far, Nato has about 4,000 troops in multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units.
A woman points a weapon during a military training session for employees of essential city industries and services outside Lviv in Ukraine yesterday. (Reuters)