US president Joe Biden predicted that Russia would “move in” on Ukraine, and warned that an invasion would be a “disaster” for Vladimir Putin, as he urged the west to remain united in holding Moscow “accountable” for any aggression.
At a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, Biden said that Russia would “pay a stiff price, immediately, short term, medium term and long term” in the event of an invasion of Ukraine.
But he acknowledged that there were still “differences” among western allies about the punishment for Moscow. “It’s very important that we keep everyone in Nato on the same page. That’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences . . . in Nato as to what countries are willing to do,” he said.
Biden’s comments came as Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, called on the EU to forge its own plan for “security and stability” with Russia, in a move that risks undermining western solidarity in the face of Kremlin aggression towards Ukraine.
In a speech to the European Parliament, Macron called for EU states to “conduct their own dialogue” with Russia rather than support diplomatic efforts led by the US and Nato, in sharp contrast to a plea from Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, for “unity”.
Macron said that despite the joint EU-US diplomacy, Europeans had to offer Russia a solution to de-escalate tensions with Moscow in the “coming weeks”.
“We should build as Europeans working with other Europeans and with Nato and then propose it for negotiation with Russia,” he told MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday. “It is good that Europeans and the United States co-ordinate, but it is necessary that Europeans conduct their own dialogue.”
Macron’s intervention is the first example of public dissent between Nato members since the US first warned of a potential Russian attack on Ukraine more than two months ago.
It also breaks a united front between the EU and US on Russia, underpinned by what officials have described as unprecedented levels of diplomatic outreach by the US to engage Brussels in the dialogue with Moscow.
Speaking during a visit to Kyiv on Wednesday, Blinken stressed the need for a unified approach ahead of his planned meeting with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, in Geneva on Friday.
“The strength of our diplomacy, our deterrence and any response to Moscow’s aggression demands unity among allies and partners, as well as within Ukraine,” he said.
Russia has long sought to sideline the EU in favour of negotiating with individual countries. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, pushed back against broader multinational talks, saying that Moscow would prefer to deal primarily with the US.
“We would prefer to find an understanding and do a deal with the Americans foremost. Bringing in too broad a circle of countries into these processes seems counterproductive to us,” he said.
The EU is struggling to reach agreement on what level of aggression from Russia towards Ukraine should trigger sanctions, amid diverging levels of enthusiasm among its members.
Biden also suggested that the scale of the western response could depend on the scale of the Russian attack on Ukraine, saying that a “minor incursion” might yield a different sort of retaliation from the US and its allies than an all-out invasion.
Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, and threatened an unspecified “military-technical response” if Nato does not roll back its forces and pledge never to admit Ukraine.
Blinken, who met Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said that Russia could “in short order” double its 100,000-plus force at various locations close to its border with Ukraine.
“That gives President [Vladimir] Putin the capacity also on very short notice to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” Blinken said. “I strongly, strongly hope we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but ultimately this is President Putin’s decision.”
Blinken repeated warnings that Russia would face crippling sanctions if it further invaded Ukraine, having annexed Crimea in 2014 and since then fuelled a war in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
Ryabkov on Wednesday described the security situation in Europe as “critical”, but said that Russia would “not attack, strike, invade, quote-unquote whatever, Ukraine”.
Blinken will travel to Berlin on Thursday before meeting Lavrov. The meeting in Geneva follows talks last week between Russia, the US and Nato, which Moscow described as a “dead end” after its security demands, including for Ukraine’s Nato membership bid to be rejected, were ruled out.