A high-stakes meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart this week could determine whether Moscow launches an attack on neighboring Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat said Sunday.
Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he agreed to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, provided Moscow has not invaded its neighbor.
“It’s my responsibility to do everything I can to try diplomatically to prevent a war,” he said.
NATO officials are scrambling to find a diplomatic solution as a buildup of Russian troops and military exercises on Ukraine’s northern border raise fears of an imminent invasion. About 150,000 Russian troops have massed on three sides of Ukraine, and Moscow extended military drills that were due to end Sunday in neighboring Belarus.
Russian commanders were ordered to go forward with an invasion of Ukraine, according to ABC News and CBS News, which cited anonymous U.S. intelligence sources Sunday.
President Joe Biden is set to call a meeting of his National Security Council on Sunday. Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up a visit to the Munich Security Conference, where she met on the sidelines with NATO leaders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told “Fox News Sunday” any invasion before Blinken’s meeting would mean that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an attack with “diplomatic options left on the table.”
“They won’t have an excuse that merits any sort of credibility about why they went forward when there was a diplomatic path forward,” he said. “They will choose this war.”
Despite the last-ditch efforts, Blinken said U.S. intelligence indicates Russia is trying to provoke an invasion.
“All of this seems to be following the script that I laid out at the United Nations Security Council, that President Biden talked about to the nation just the other day,” he said.
No sanctions before attack, US officials say
U.S. officials pushed back on Zelenskyy’s criticism of Western leaders for withholding sanctions on Russia if all signs point to a potential invasion of Ukraine.
Kirby told Fox News sanctions are meant to be a deterrent.
“If you punish somebody for something they haven’t done yet, then they might as well just go ahead and do it. So we’re holding that in advance, and we’re hoping that could affect the calculus of Mr. Putin,” he said.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Blinken emphasized there’s still an option for Putin to pull back from any plans to invade.
“Until the tanks are rolling and the planes are in the air, we’re going to try everything we possibly can to get President Putin to reverse the decision we believe he’s made,” he said. “We’re trying to prevent a war. As soon as you trigger the sanctions, of course, any deterrent effect they may have is gone.”
Zelesnkyy aired his frustrations to Western leaders at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, urging allies to impose sanctions.
“You’re telling me that it’s 100% that the war will start in a couple of days. Then what (are you) waiting for?” he asked.
Blinken and Kirby underscored that allies are prepared to impose punishing sanctions as part of a unified NATO response, an unintended consequence of Putin’s gamble on Ukraine..
Russia delays exit of troops from Belarus
Russia extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders Sunday, increasing fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion.
The exercises, originally set to end Sunday, brought a sizable contingent of Russian forces to neighboring Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. The presence of the Russian troops raised concern that they could sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Belorussian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin announced that Belarus and Russia would “continue testing the response forces.”
Harris acknowledges potential war
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe. I mean, let’s really take a moment to understand the significance of what we’re talking about,” Harris said Sunday in Germany before her return to Washington. Europe, she said, might be at its most perilous moment since the end of World War II.
In a burst of diplomacy at the annual Munich Security Conference, Harris tried to make the case to American allies that rapidly escalating tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border meant European security was under “direct threat” and there should be unified support for economic penalties if the Kremlin invades its neighbor.
Where are the Russians? Is Russia going to invade Ukraine? Satellite images show the latest Russian troop movements
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said, “The big question remains: Does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” Michel said at the conference. “One thing is certain: If there is further military aggression, we will react with massive sanctions.”
Finnish president: Putin ‘wants to be very decisive’
Finland’s president warned that Putin is using a “two steps forward, one back” strategy in deploying troops near Ukraine, “increasing tensions” and risking war.
“So far, I would say that he has behaved in a way that is very difficult to predict but that might be also intentional,” President Sauli Niinistö said Sunday during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Finland, which borders Russia, is not a member of NATO and has had its own complicated and tense relationship with Moscow for more than a century. Niinistö has led the Nordic country and European Union member for a decade, during which he has been one of the world leaders in most frequent communication with Putin.
“He wants to be very decisive,” Niinistö said, noting that during a phone call, the Russian leader was more official in his recognition of Finnish assertions of sovereignty than he’d been in the past. “It was a change from his past behavior,” Niinistö said.
Niinistö cautioned that the world is “almost in a colder situation” than during the Cold War because “then we had at least some agreements between the U.S. and Soviet Union limiting arms and so forth. Now we do not have, actually, anything.” He warned that the lack of communication between Russia and the West leaves the world more “vulnerable.”
Zelenskyy calls for meeting with Putin
Ukraine’s president called on Putin to choose a place where the two leaders could meet to try to resolve the crisis. There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.
Saturday at the Munich conference, Zelenskyy defiantly vowed to protect his country from a Russian invasion and chastised Europe for not doing more to safeguard its military and economic security.
In his native tongue, Zelenskyy said Ukraine was prepared “to protect our beautiful land on our borders whether we have 150,000 or 1 million soldiers of any army.”
Zelenskyy said he appreciated the military supplies the West provided, but Europe must do more to recognize and reward Ukraine’s role in European stability.
Tension in Ukraine
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization Saturday and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of the rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are endangered might be used as justification for military action.
Officials in the separatist territories claimed that Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past day and that two civilians were killed in an unsuccessful assault on a village near the Russian border.
Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German air carrier Lufthansa canceled flights to the capital, Kyiv, and Odesa, a Black Sea port that could be a target in an invasion.
NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv said it was relocating staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
Biden said late Friday that based on the latest American intelligence, he was “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and assault the capital.
A U.S. military official said 40% to 50% of Russian ground forces have moved into attack positions closer to the border. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. assessments, said the change has been underway for about a week and does not necessarily mean Putin has settled on an invasion.
Lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: The American and Russian defense chiefs spoke Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Sunday for nearly two hours before a call with the Ukrainian president.
In eastern Ukraine, government forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed about 14,000 people.
Ukraine and the separatist leaders traded accusations of escalation. Russia said Saturday that at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”
On the front lines in Ukraine
Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. The officials fled to a bomb shelter before hustling from the area, according to an Associated Press journalist on the tour.
The military closed a checkpoint leading to the separatist region after it came under repeated shelling.
Elsewhere on the front lines, Ukrainian soldiers said they were under orders not to return fire. Zahar Leshushun, peering into the distance with a periscope, had followed the news all day from a trench where he is posted near the town of Zolote.
“Right now, we don’t respond to their fire because …” the soldier started to explain before being interrupted by the sound of an incoming shell. “Oh! They are shooting at us now. They are aiming at the command post.”
Contributing: The Associated Press