The United States and its EU partners stepped up warnings of major consequences if Russia invades Ukraine as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to Washington on January 5 for a meeting dominated by upcoming talks with Russia.
Blinken said he and Baerbock emphasized the “preference to pursue diplomacy and de-escalation” to deal with Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine.
“We would far prefer a diplomatic path and diplomatic solution to the situation,” Blinken said, adding that the talks would “test Russia’s willingness to take that path.”
Baerbock said she and Blinken agreed "on the importance of finding a good path forward to finding a solution together for the process of dialogue.” She emphasized that Germany’s position is that there is no alternative to a political solution.
The meeting took place ahead of talks scheduled to take place next week between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva and a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.
Russia wants the talks to discuss its demands for security guarantees against expanding the NATO alliance eastward to include Ukraine and other former Soviet republics such as Georgia.
Russia made the demands after its military buildup raised fears of a repeat of 2014 when Moscow seized the Crimea Peninsula and a Russia-backed insurgency broke out in eastern Ukraine that has since claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Blinken said there is a “real question” of whether Russia is serious about diplomacy and de-escalation, and Germany and the United States “see Russia’s actions toward Ukraine as an immediate and urgent challenge to peace and stability in Europe."
He and Baerbock condemn the military buildup “as well as Russia’s increasingly harsh rhetoric as it continues to push the false narrative that Ukraine seeks to provoke [Russia].”
He likened that to “the fox saying it had no choice but to attack the henhouse because somehow the hens presented a threat.”
Baerbock said she and Blinken “jointly reiterated that Russian actions and activities come with a clear price tag, and a renewed violation of Ukrainian sovereignty by Russia would have severe consequences.”
Western officials have hinted at severe economic sanctions, including a near total cutoff from the international financial system, but there have been very few specifics, and Blinken again declined to discuss them.
"I’m not going to telegraph them publicly, but I can tell you with great confidence that a tremendous amount of work has been done already. There is very strong coordination and collaboration and very strong agreement on measures that would be taken in the event of renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he said.
Blinken also said that the future of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be affected if Russia invades Ukraine.
“From our perspective, it’s very hard to see gas flowing through that pipeline for it to become operational if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine," he said.
The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is complete but has not yet begun delivering Russian gas to Germany because it has not received approval from German regulators.
Asked if Germany is ready to cancel the pipeline, Baerbock said only that the new government backed an understanding reached last year with the United States that Germany would “take effective measures together with our European partners should Russia use energy as a weapon."
As Baerbock visited Washington, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was in Ukraine.
Borrell told a joint news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba that Kyiv and Brussels have a common goal to ease tensions through “diplomatic means.”
Borrell earlier paid a visit to the contact line in eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian government forces.
"The conflict on the borders is on the verge of getting deeper and tensions have been building up with respect to the European security as a whole," Borrell said.
"Any military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs," Borrell said.
Kuleba said he was glad the EU foreign policy chief had a chance to visit the contact line and "feel the consequences of the conflict with his own eyes."