Biden and Blinken offer assurances to Ukraine, warnings to Russia

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered in-person assurances to Ukraine’s besieged leaders Wednesday as President Biden vowed to punish Russia if it invades the former Soviet republic.

“The world is watching,” Blinken said in a short news conference with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, in the capital city of Kyiv.

Soon after Blinken's meetings with leaders in Ukraine, Biden said he expects Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a move with his troops massed at the countries' border. “I’m not so sure that he is certain what is he going to do,” Biden said at a news conference Wednesday at the White House.

"But if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine," Biden said.

"Our allies and partners are ready to impose severe cost and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy," he added.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and could double the number in "relatively short order," Blinken said. Russian reinforcements reportedly also have been moved into Moscow ally Belarus, on Ukraine's northern border. Russia is also supporting separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

Blinken said the U.S. and its European allies remained united over helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s “relentless” aggression and urged the same unity from the often-bickering officials in Kyiv. “Do not let Moscow divide you,” he said.

“That means that leaders inside and outside Ukraine’s government have to put aside their differences in favor of the shared national interest and work together to prepare for what could be difficult days," Blinken said. "But in doing that, the United States wants you to know this, as you stand up to efforts to divide, to intimidate, to threaten: The United States stands with you, resolutely, in your right to make decisions for your own future, to shape that future as Ukrainians for Ukraine.”

Blinken reiterated that if Russia further invades Ukraine — as it did in 2014, seizing the Crimean peninsula — Putin's government will suffer severe economic and financial consequences.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom Blinken also met, would like to see those sanctions imposed before any new invasion. Washington and Europe have thus far declined to add sanctions to the measures already in place while diplomatic efforts play out.

Zelensky seemed to mildly chide Blinken when the two leaders appeared before journalists earlier Wednesday.

"I think we generally have the same agenda," Zelensky said, "but we still want to discuss some things in detail, because your intelligence is excellent, but you are far overseas, and we are here, and I think we know some things a little bit deeper about our state."

During Blinken's hastily arranged trip to Ukraine, the Biden administration announced an additional $200 million in defensive military aid for the country, funds that had been approved earlier in the month but not made public until now.

In a stop at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Blinken painted the Ukraine crisis in broad strokes.

"As much as we are all focused on Ukraine and our own commitment to its sovereignty, to its territorial integrity, to its independence, I think you all know very well that this is in a sense bigger than Ukraine," he said.

"It’s bigger than Ukraine because what Russia is doing with the aggression that it has already committed and the threat of further aggression is to challenge the very basic principles that undergird the entire international system and are necessary for trying to keep peace and security.

"Principles like one nation can’t simply change the borders of another by force. Principles like one nation can’t simply dictate to another its choices, including with whom it will associate. Principles like nations cannot exert spheres of influence to try to subjugate their neighbors to their will."

Despite the flurry of diplomacy, Washington and Moscow seem worlds apart on fundamental positions.

On Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov repeated his country's denials of any plans to invade Ukraine and claimed the troops at the border were conducting training exercises. Ryabkov also reiterated the Kremlin's demand that the U.S. promise Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — a notion that Blinken has said is a nonstarter.

The U.S. top diplomat is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday in Geneva. Senior U.S. and Russian diplomats, along with officials from NATO and the European Union, kept up days of intense meetings last week hoping to ease tensions with Russia over Ukraine. No progress was reported.

There is growing consensus among Western analysts that the possibility of a Russian military attack or invasion has only grown. Some diplomats have suggested Russia's willingness to engage the Americans in talks is a stall tactic. Last week, the White House alleged that Russia was scheming ways to execute a "false flag" operation, a pretext for invading Ukraine, using saboteurs, subversives and cybershenanigans.

Even as Lavrov agrees to sit down with Blinken, Russia is reportedly calling up reserves and moving additional heavy equipment that would be used to conduct amphibious assaults.

All of this is being driven by Putin's big-picture goals that diplomatic meetings cannot resolve. Angela Stent, a former director who is now a senior advisor at Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, said the current conflict is 30 years in the making, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a post-Cold War global security system that did not include Moscow.

"What we are talking about is Putin wanting the world to recognize Russia, not only as a great power, but treating it as if it were the Soviet Union ... a great power to be respected, to be feared, which has a right to a sphere of influence," Stent said in a podcast Wednesday for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Biden on Wednesday also heard from a seven-member bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators and House representatives who traveled to Kyiv this week. Some in Congress have urged the administration to take more forceful deterrent measures against Russia.

“Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea and the actions that they are planning today represent the most serious assault on the post-World War II order in our lifetime,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.).

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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