Moscow Faces ‘Massive Consequences’ If Russia Continues Aggression Toward Ukraine, Blinken Tells RFE/RL

KYIV — Russia faces “massive consequences” if it chooses “the path of aggression” with Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, as he called on Moscow to engage in diplomacy to end a crisis brewing with Ukraine and the West.

In an interview with RFE/RL on January 27, Blinken said Washington still doesn’t know what the Kremlin’s endgame is for Ukraine, or for its demands to rewrite Europe’s existing security structure.

“I maintain that the only person who can tell you what the Kremlin endgame is is [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin. I don’t think anyone else knows. And he may not even know at this point because what he’s done in the past, and what I believe animates the way he approaches things, is to create as many options as possible. And they run the gamut,” Blinken said.

The top U.S. diplomat spoke one day after the United States formally presented its written response to Russia’s ultimatums, released last month in the form of two draft treaties.

The Russian demands have been accompanied by the deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops to regions near Ukraine’s borders, along with some of Russia’s most sophisticated military hardware.

The two documents amount to a wholesale restructuring of Europe’s security structure, calling for a moratorium on NATO expansion into former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine, and a pullback of troops and weaponry in Eastern Europe to locations before NATO made its first major post-Cold War expansion in 1999.

The proposals, which also call for new restrictions on the deployment of nuclear weaponry in Europe and other related issues, have been met largely with disapproval by the United States and its European allies.

High Stakes Talks

U.S., NATO, Russian, and other European diplomats met for three rounds of high stakes talks in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna earlier this month, to try avert a new full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

In addition to presenting the two draft proposals, Russian diplomats demanded a written response from the United States and NATO.

On January 26, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow presented Washington’s written response to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the contents of the response contained.

However, Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, appeared downbeat in his comments to Russian news agencies.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had the written remarks and would look at them.

“Of course, it will take some time to analyze them. Let’s not rush to any conclusions,” Peskov was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying.

“I repeat once again, let’s not rush into assessments,” he told TASS. “It takes time to analyze, and, in the end, for our president to formulate the appropriate position. Let’s see how it will be.”

‘Two Paths’ For Moscow

In the interview, conducted via Skype from Washington, Blinken downplayed any divergence of opinion or conclusion between the United States and Ukraine over the seriousness of the Russian threat.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has appeared to chafe over the tenor or dire nature of the U.S. warnings, and he has released two Ukrainian videos in which he called on people not to panic.

Earlier this week, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that “invasion was imminent.”

“President Zelenskiy is right. No one should panic, and no one is,” Blinken said. “We will do everything we can to make clear to Moscow that it has two paths before it: the path of diplomacy and dialogue, to resolve differences peacefully, or the path of aggression, if that’s what it chooses, and the massive consequences that will flow from that.”

“We can see a massing of Russian forces on Ukraine borders– the south, east, the north– that is larger than at any time since 2014. And we’re aware of plans to double the size of those forces on very, very short notice as well as efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within,” he said.

“So we have to do everything that we’re doing based on the facts, based on what we’re seeing to make sure that we’re prepared either way,” he said. “We’re doing that in very close consultation and coordination with the government in Ukraine as well as with allies and partners.”

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia erupted in February 2014, when months of street protests culminated in violent clashes in Kyiv and the ouster of the country’s pro-Russian president. Shortly after, Russia moved to annex Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and began stoking a war in the eastern region known broadly as the Donbas.

More than 13,200 people have been killed, and more than 1 million displaced.

U.S. officials have given some signals about what possible punitive measures against Moscow are under consideration: for example, disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT system of global bank transfers or imposing an expanded ban on high-tech exports to Russia. The White House has also reportedly discussed increasing U.S. troops deployments to NATO allies close to the Russian border.

Blinken declined to give details about what “massive consequences” would entail. And he declined to go into detail about the written U.S. response, saying: “we have listened to the concerns that they’ve raised. We have shared very profound concerns of our own as well as those of allies and partners, throughout Europe.”

Diplomats have also tried to breathe new life into the Minsk Accords, the cease-fire deal that contains the groundwork for a final settlement in the Donbas. The deal has long been hamstrung by differing interpretations of its contents, and the process for implementing them.

On January 26, diplomats from France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine met in Paris, and in a small, but positive step, agreed to meet again in mid-February in Berlin.

Blinken endorsed the Minsk Accords, and the Normandy format of talks involving France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, but he also suggested that Moscow was not negotiating in good faith.

“I don’t think there’s actually any real mystery: the requirements elaborated through basically three iterations are clear,” he said. “There are portions of sequencing in some cases where it’s not spelled out, that has to be worked out.”

“I think it’s fair to say that, while neither side has implemented everything, or started to implement everything required, I think it’s fair to say by far Russia reneged on its agreements to a much greater extent than Ukraine has,” Blinken said. “It’s implemented virtually nothing required of it in the agreements.”

Amid grumblings in Kyiv about whether U.S. rhetoric was sending jitters through Ukraine’s economy – the currency, the hryvnya, is down more than 7 percent since December, and dipped further this week — the U.S. State Department announced the evacuation of some relatives of its diplomats at the embassy in Kyiv while also urging U.S. citizens to make plans to leave the country.

That appeared to catch Ukrainian officials caught off-guard. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called the evacuation “premature.”

In a virtual town hall hosted by the U.S. Embassy on January 25, hundreds of U.S. citizens joined the call, with some angrily criticizing the embassy for what they said was a lack of information, and support in the face of the Russian threat.

In the interview, Blinken defended the evacuation order.

“The vast majority of the people we asked to come home were family members, children,” he said. “I did that as a prudent step just to make sure that, if conflict happens, and it could happen on short notice, with little warning, that people were out of the way and protected,” Blinken said.


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