WASHINGTON – U.S. representatives and NATO members Thursday emerged from several days of high-stakes discussions with top Russian officials with warnings that the situation along the Ukraine border is getting worse.
“The drumbeat of war is sounding loud and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill,” U.S. diplomatic official Michael Carpenter said of the discussions with Moscow.
Moscow’s intentions remain unclear, he added, after the talks in Europe wrapped up.
“There are close to 100,000 troops on the Russian side of its border with Ukraine. Their presence and the live-fire measures being carried out are raising many questions about Moscow’s intention,” he said, adding that the U.S. had seen advanced weaponry, artillery systems, electronic warfare systems and ammunition also staged along the border.
“That begs a lot of questions about what Russia’s intentions are. So we have to take this very seriously and we have to prepare for the eventualities that there could be an escalation,” said Carpenter, who acts as the permanent representative of the U.S. to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In Washington, national security advisor Jake Sullivan said American intelligence agencies have determined that Russia is “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for an invasion – including through sabotage activities and information operations – by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack on Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine.”
“We saw this playbook in 2014, and they are preparing this playbook again,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House, adding that the United States is “ready either way.”
For months, Kyiv has warned the U.S. and European allies that tens of thousands of Russian troops were massing along its eastern border. The buildup has evoked shades of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which sparked an international uproar and triggered a series of sanctions on Moscow.
The Kremlin has previously denied that it was preparing for an invasion.
Wendy Sherman, the U.S. deputy secretary of State, held talks with her Russian counterpart on Monday in Geneva.
Sherman said that in her discussions with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which lasted for nearly eight hours, she conveyed the severe economic consequences the Biden administration was prepared to take against Moscow.
“We are very ready and aligned with our partners and allies to impose those severe costs,” Sherman told reporters on a conference call following her meeting with Ryabkov on Monday.
“Those sanctions will include key financial institutions, export controls that target key industries, enhancements of NATO force posture on allied territory, and increased security assistance to Ukraine,” Sherman said, adding that the Biden administration was coordinating measures with NATO allies, the European Council and G7 members.
Victoria Nuland, U.S. under secretary of State for political affairs, echoed similar sentiments Tuesday.
“We are very confident in the consultations that we’ve been having with our allies and partners. We’ve been working at this for some two and a half months at every level from the president on down. We have, as I discussed in very broad strokes a common understanding of the kind of intensive financial measures we’ll need to take,” Nuland told reporters.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday following four hours of talks with Russian officials that “significant differences” between NATO allies and Moscow remain.
“NATO allies are ready to engage in dialogue with Russia, but we will not compromise on core principles. We will not compromise on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every nation in Europe,” the alliance chief said.
Since 2002, Ukraine has sought entry into NATO, where the group’s Article 5 clause states that an attack on one member country is considered an attack on all of them.
Putin has described NATO’s eastward expansion as a “red line” that poses security threats to Moscow. Russian officials reiterated in a separate press briefing this week that it is “absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never, ever becomes a member of NATO.”
“We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov added.
When asked about Russia’s request to deny Ukraine NATO membership, Sherman said the alliance was not willing to negotiate on that topic.
“Russia is a big country with vast land territory. They’re a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. They have the largest national military in Europe. Along with the United States, we are the two largest nuclear powers on earth. They are a powerful country,” Sherman explained to reporters from the NATO headquarters.
“The fact that they feel threatened by Ukraine, a smaller and still developing democracy is hard to understand quite frankly,” she added.
Last month, President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin twice amid the significant military buildup on the Ukrainian border. During the first call on Dec. 7, Biden declined to accept Putin’s “red lines” on Ukraine.
And during the leaders’ most recent call, on Dec. 30, Biden reiterated concerns and renewed threats that his administration would “respond decisively” alongside allies and partners if Russia further invades Ukraine.