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Despite differences, Biden administration stresses transatlantic unity on Ukraine

Secretary of State Antony Blinken fist-bumps German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Jan. 20 in Berlin before taking part in crisis talks on Ukraine. (Alex Brandon/AP)

BERLIN — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday highlighted Western unity in confronting Russia’s pressure on Ukraine, even as the standoff over Moscow’s military buildup exposes differences among the United States and its European allies.

Blinken, who met with counterparts from Germany, Britain and France during an hours-long visit to the German capital, described a “decisive juncture” as the Biden administration intensifies its diplomatic push to prevent conflict on Europe’s eastern edge.

“We cannot choose the path for Moscow, but we can make crystal clear the stark consequences of that choice,” Blinken told reporters after a hastily convened meeting of what is called the “Transatlantic Quad,” before making reference to NATO’s shared commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty. “That unity gives us strength, a strength, I might add, that Russia does not and cannot match.”

The Biden administration has accelerated its warnings that Russia, with some 100,000 troops positioned around Ukraine, may be preparing for an imminent invasion. Moscow has accused Ukraine of threatening its security by accumulating foreign weaponry and seeking to join the NATO alliance.

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Most recently, Russia has moved forces into Belarus, Ukraine’s pro-Moscow neighbor to the north, in a development that Moscow has portrayed as a regular exercise but that Washington says could signal plans for an additional front against Ukraine.

Questions remained about how closely NATO nations are aligned on certain aspects of the Ukraine crisis, including how best to respond if Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, again resorts to force — questions that President Biden raised Wednesday in remarks about the situation.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, speaking alongside Blinken, said her country, like the United States, was committed to imposing “grave consequences” should Russia move forces into Ukraine.

“The coordination and consultation amongst us allies couldn’t be more intensive than it is,” she said.

The Biden administration has granted permission to the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to send U.S.-made weapons to Ukraine, including Stinger air defense systems and Javelin antitank weapons, U.S. and European officials said. The decision, which was first reported by Politico, marks an escalation in the West’s confrontation with Moscow as countries prepare Kyiv to defend itself in the event of a Russian invasion.

The Biden administration has also informed Congress that it will give Ukraine five Mi-17 transport helicopters, a State Department spokesperson said.

The spokesman declined to discuss the Baltic weapons transfers but added that “the United States and its allies and partners are standing together to expedite security assistance to Ukraine. We are in close touch with our Ukrainian partners and our NATO allies on this and are utilizing all available security cooperation tools to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of growing Russian aggression.”

At the same time, while NATO members unanimously voiced backing this month for maintaining the alliance’s “open-door” policy that could permit Ukraine’s eventual membership, they have differing positions on Kyiv’s accession and how exactly to respond to a Russian assault.

Jim Townsend, who served as a senior Pentagon official for Europe, said a major point of divergence were potential sanctions related to the energy sector.

“That’s Europe’s Achilles’ heel, their dependency on Russia for oil and gas. So if sanctions imperil energy supplies, nations are less likely to sanction that sector,” he said. “With these fissures, strong U.S. and NATO leadership is vital; [NATO] Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg and Tony Blinken will have to be at the top of their game to keep everyone together in the face of Russian pressure.”

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said European nations should engage with Russia independently, instead of relying on the United States to represent their interests to Russia.

“It is good that Europeans and the United States coordinate, but it is necessary that Europeans conduct their own dialogue,” Macron said, according to the Reuters news agency.

In addition, Germany’s new government has only haltingly signaled a willingness to pause the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring Russian gas to Western Europe, as a retaliatory move if Russia invades. Blinken, meanwhile, has suggested the project will be abandoned if war erupts, something the German government has not affirmed.

Blinken says U.S. will stand with Ukraine if Russia attacks

Not only does Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s fledgling coalition face internal divisions over Russia and the Nord Stream 2 project, Germany already has deep energy and trade relations to consider when it comes to dealing with Moscow, as the country is the largest importer of Russian natural gas. After China, Germany is Russia’s largest trade partner.

Successive U.S. administrations have pressured Berlin to take a harder line on Russia. During the 2008 NATO summit that yielded a tentative promise of membership for Ukraine, it was Germany and France that opposed Ukraine’s rapid admission into the alliance.

In another difference, Germany, unlike some other European nations, has declined to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine.

It’s not clear whether those differences could be affected by Biden’s suggestion, during a marathon news conference on Wednesday, that the severe economic and political retaliation Western nations have threatened would not occur if Russia took some kind of military action that fell short of a large-scale invasion.

“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does,” Biden said. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do, et cetera, but if they actually do what they are capable of doing with the force they’ve massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.”

The White House later clarified his remarks, saying any movement of Russian forces into Ukraine would be considered an invasion.

The Biden administration has said it would respond to renewed aggression by unleashing far more wide-reaching sanctions than those imposed after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, potentially including sector-wide sanctions and steps to cut Russia off from the global financial system.

Blinken, who will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva, said that while the specific sanctions or retaliatory steps of NATO members might differ, the effect would still be powerful.

“We have different authorities in our different countries that we have to look at. There will no doubt be, if these sanctions prove necessary, a division of labor, but everything will be complementary, mutually reinforcing and closely coordinated,” he said.

He also said officials had been coordinating on potential steps should Russia increase its pressure on Ukraine short of invasion.

U.S. officials have accused Russia of conducting cyber and disinformation operations against Ukraine and positioning personnel in the country’s east who could conduct sabotage or “false flag” operations to provide a rationale for military action.

In her remarks, Baerbock hinted at the tensions Germany faces over Nord Stream 2 but also appeared to reflect her government’s evolving position on the role of European energy supplies in the Ukraine showdown.

“This is about no less than ... the preservation of Europe’s peaceful order. It is of existential importance for us. We have no choice but to consistently stand up for it,” she said. “This is expressly true in cases where this might have economic consequences for ourselves.”

Ukraine brushed off any questions over U.S. support, and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reaffirmed on Thursday that “Ukraine has the support of the U.S. in withstanding Russian aggression. Period.”

But he also warned against “repeating the mistakes of 2014,” when the “West was confused, indecisive and slow, and this allowed Russia to commit many crimes and kill many Ukrainian citizens.”

Ahead of the Geneva meeting, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that warnings about a pending invasion were a camouflage for provocations against Russia. She also complained of recent British and American arms shipments to Ukraine.

“Ukraine views such assistance as carte blanche for an armed operation in Donbas,” Zakharova said, referring to the region where Russian-backed separatists are locked in a protracted conflict with Ukrainian forces.

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow, Perry Stein in Brussels, David L. Stern in Kyiv, Rick Noack in Paris and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

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