The US and its allies will deliver a “swift, severe and united response” if Russia invades Ukraine, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, warned on Sunday amid rising tensions.
The top US diplomat’s comments came as Russia continued its military build-up on the Ukraine border and Britain said it had exposed evidence of a plot by Vladimir Putin to install a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv.
The Russian president, Blinken said, must choose between the “preferred path of diplomacy and dialogue” or “Russian aggression and massive consequences”. The US, Nato, and Europe stood ready to deal with any eventuality, he said.
“We’ve been very clear that if there is any further Russian aggression in terms of sending Russian forces into Ukraine, there will be a swift, severe and united response from the United States and Europe,” Blinken told CBS’s Face the Nation, echoing the message he said he delivered to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in “frank and substantive” talks in Geneva last week.
“We’ve been equally clear that Russia engages in other tactics short of sending forces into Ukraine, or other countries, hybrid actions, cyber attacks, efforts to bring the government down. There, too, I’m confident based on the many consultations I’ve had with European allies and partners that there will be a swift, calibrated and also united response.”
Blinken would not say if that response included committing US forces, but told CNN’s State of the Union the alliance was looking at “very practical and important measures”, including military options.
“One thing we’ve been clear about, besides the massive economic, financial consequences that would befall Russia if it makes further aggression against Ukraine, is the ongoing, continued build-up of defense capacity in Ukraine and, equally, continuing to build up Nato’s defensive capabilities, including on the so-called eastern flank, the countries near Russia.
“A single additional Russian force” going into Ukraine would trigger a response, Blinken said. “We’re looking at every single scenario, preparing for every single one.”
With an estimated 125,000 Russian troops at or close to the Ukraine border, western allies have scrambled to bolster military assets in the region. About 90 tons of US equipment arrived in Ukraine this weekend, part of a $200m package of “lethal aid” approved by Joe Biden last month. The UK has sent anti-tank weaponry and personnel to help train Ukraine forces.
The Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are among nations sending or promising aid, although questions remain over the strength of the alliance and last week’s insistence by White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, that Nato’s 30 member states were “speaking with one voice“.
Germany has refused to send weapons, saying it would be “unhelpful” and that Berlin would instead contribute medical resources. Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukraine minister of foreign affairs, responded in a tweet that the result of Germany’s position was to “undermine unity and encourage Vladimir Putin to a new attack on Ukraine”.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Blinken was dismissive.
“I sat with Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz just last week for an hour and listened very carefully to him. I’ve been on the phone and saw my own German counterpart, foreign minister [Annalena] Baerbock, and I can tell you that the Germans very much share our concerns, and are resolute and determined to respond swiftly, effectively and in a united way. I have no doubts about that.”
Blinken also rebuffed calls from critics, voiced on Sunday by the Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, that the US should impose sanctions on Russia before any invasion took place.
“We need to show strength and not be in a position of a doctrine of appeasement, which seems to be how President Biden has worked his administration,” Ernst, a member of the Senate committee on armed services, told CNN.
“We do need to go ahead and impose sanctions on Russia now. We need to show them that we mean business and we will be there for Ukraine should they invade. Once an invasion happens, lives are lost. You can’t go back from that.”
Blinken said preemptive sanctions would weaken the allies’ position.
“The purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression. So if they’re triggered now you lose the deterrent effect,” he said.
“All of the things that we’re doing, including building up in a united way with Europe massive consequences for Russia, is designed to factor into President Putin’s calculus and to deter and dissuade him from taking aggressive action, even as we pursue diplomacy at the same time.”
Support for Blinken came from an unexpected quarter, his immediate predecessor as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, praising a “stronger statement” than that from Biden this week.
“I hope they’re serious about this,” the Trump loyalist told Fox News Sunday. “I hope they’re prepared not only to speak about this, and that they have a plan, but they have an execution matrix that sits underneath that so that they are prepared to actually do this in real time.
“It doesn’t take days of meetings and discussions with allies and friends to plan to execute a response commensurate with the activity the Russians take.”
Pompeo also criticized Biden’s efforts to clarify comments made on Wednesday that a “minor incursion” by Russia would provoke a lesser response. The president later said any “assembled Russian units” moving across the border would be viewed as an invasion.
“We need to be unequivocal in diplomacy,” Pompeo said. “If there’s room for doubt, if there’s space, Vladimir Putin will drive a truck through that gap, he will perceive any weakness, any gap, and say, ‘Well, we didn’t send an assembled unit, it was disorganized’.”
Striking a note familiar in rightwing US circles, Pompeo also had praise for Putin.
Under Trump, he said, “we had respect for him and his power. He’s a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts. He was a KGB agent, for goodness sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that.”