By Simon Lewis
BERLIN, Jan 20 (Reuters) – The European Union has threatened to impose “massive” economic sanctions if Moscow attacks Ukraine, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken encouraging allies on Thursday ahead of talks on the crisis with Russia to avoid a war.
Western countries are trying to present a united diplomatic front before Blinken meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, seen as one of the last chances to stop Russia from launching a new attack.
Blinken visited Kiev on Wednesday and met ministers from Germany, France and Britain on Thursday in Berlin. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden gave the clearest signal yet that he believes a Russian attack is likely.
“My guess is that he is going to intervene,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You have to do something.”
Western countries fear that Russia is planning a new offensive against Ukraine, almost eight years after its forces entered the country and seized the Crimean peninsula.
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border in recent months. He denies planning an attack but says he could take unspecified military action unless a list of demands is met, including NATO’s promise never to admit Kiev.
Biden and other Western leaders have threatened to impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia if it attacks Ukraine again. Russia, under sanctions since 2014, has ignored the threat.
“WE ARE PREPARED”
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the Community Executive, said that Europe would respond to a new attack “with massive economic and financial sanctions. The transatlantic community stands firm on this.”
“We do not accept Russia’s attempt to divide Europe into spheres of influence,” he said. “If attacks occur, we are prepared.”
The Kremlin said Thursday that US warnings of potentially disastrous consequences for Russia are not helping to reduce tensions over Ukraine and could even further destabilize the situation.
Blinken promised in Kiev on Wednesday that Washington would maintain diplomacy for as long as it can. In Berlin, he will deliver a speech trying to portray the Ukraine crisis as a critical moment for the rules-based international order, a State Department official said.
Moscow presented the West with a list of security demands in talks last week, which produced no breakthrough.
Repeated rounds of economic sanctions since 2014 have had little impact on Russian politics as Moscow, Europe’s main energy supplier, reckons the West will not take steps serious enough to interfere with gas exports. US and European officials say strong financial measures remain untested.
Germany signaled on Tuesday that it could halt Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline from Russia that bypasses Ukraine, in the event of an invasion of Moscow.
Russia denies planning a new invasion, but says it feels threatened by Kiev’s growing ties to the West. He wants to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the alliance from withdrawing its troops and weapons from Eastern Europe.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Marine Strauss and Dmitry Antonov, Writing by Peter Graff, Editing in Spanish by Ricardo Figueroa)