The European Union will hit Russia with “massive economic and financial sanctions” should it invade Ukraine, the bloc’s chief warned on Thursday, as the top US diplomat blasted Moscow for rebuffing "good faith" diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
In a no-holds-barred speech ahead of last-ditch crisis talks between the West and Moscow, Ursula von der Leyen promised the EU would not stand idly by and leave Kiev to its own devices against increasing Russian aggression.
She said Brussels is fully prepared to respond to any new attacks carried out by Russia against its former Soviet neighbour.
Putin ‘attempting to divide Europe’
The European Commission president said the 27-nation bloc is witnessing Russia’s attempt to divide and slice the continent into sections based on influence.
Ms von der Leyen effectively put Russian President Vladimir Putin on notice to accept “massive economic and financial sanctions” if he pressed ahead with an invasion of Ukraine. “The transatlantic community stands firm on this,” she said.
"We do not accept Russia's attempt to divide Europe into spheres of influence.
"If attacks happen, we are prepared."
Ms von der Leyen’s remarks came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rallied allies on Thursday as he prepared for last-ditch crisis talks with Russia’s foreign secretary Sergey Lavrov.
“The United States and our European allies have repeatedly reached out to Russia with offers of diplomacy, in a spirit of reciprocity. So far, our good-faith gestures have been rebuffed,” Mr Blinken said.
He criticised Russia for its "relentless" campaign to destabilise Ukraine and warned that Moscow was poised to "go even further".
Pundits say the meeting scheduled to take place in Geneva on Friday is one of the last chances – if not the last – to avert an escalation of the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.
Ms von der Leyen’s comments came a day after Lithuania, an EU member, said the presence of Russian soldiers in Belarus poses a “direct threat” to the Baltic nation.
Earlier this week, Russia began moving troops and military hardware across the border into Belarusian territory. The country, a former Soviet republic, is considered to be Europe’s last dictatorship and is seen as a straddling point between Russia and Europe.
Russia also has military personnel stationed in a breakaway region of Moldova, which gives it options to attack Ukraine from four sides.
On Wednesday, Mr Blinken accused Russia of planning to reinforce the more than 100,000 troops it has deployed along the Ukrainian border and suggested that number could double “on relatively short order”. He urged Russia to pursue a "peaceful path" in its relations with Ukraine.
Macron wants EU to take the lead on Russia response
French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the EU should make its own plan for “security and stability” with Russia, in a call that risked undermining western solidarity.
During a speech to the European Parliament, Mr Macron said the bloc’s 27 member states should band together to “conduct their own dialogue” with Moscow rather than back diplomatic efforts by the US and Nato.
“We should build as Europeans working with other Europeans and with Nato and then propose it for negotiation with Russia,” the French leader 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.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday dialled up the rhetoric when he said Mr Putin would face a disaster if he makes any sort of incursion into Ukraine.
During a visit to a diagnostics centre in the English town of Taunton, Mr Johnson reiterated the UK’s longstanding support for Ukrainian sovereignty.
“If Russia were to make any kind of incursion into Ukraine on any scale whatever, I think that would be a disaster not just for Russia, it would be a disaster for the world,” he said.
“The UK stands squarely behind the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine.”
Putin will pay a ‘dear price’ for any invasion
The Kremlin said on Thursday that US warnings of possible disastrous consequences for Russia would not help reduce tensions over Ukraine and could even destabilise the situation further.
On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said the Russian leader would pay a “dear price” if he orders an invasion of Ukraine. He also said he believes Mr Putin does not want a full-blown war but would probably push ahead with an attack of some sort.
“I’m not so sure that he is certain what is he going to do,” Mr Biden said. “My guess is he will move in.”
In Kiev on Wednesday, Mr Blinken said the Biden administration would pursue diplomacy as a means of easing tensions as long as it could.
Russia denies planning an invasion but says it feels menaced by Kiev’s growing links to the West. It wants to prevent Ukraine ever joining Nato and for the transatlantic alliance to pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe.
Early on Thursday, Mr Blinken took to Twitter to say his talks in Kiev had been productive and that he looked forward to more discussions with European allies in Berlin.
“Concluded a productive trip to Kiev where I reaffirmed our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mr Blinken said on Twitter. “The United States is committed to strengthening our relationship with Ukraine as we work to deter further Russian aggression. Next stop is Berlin.”
After touching down in the German capital, he met Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and diplomats from France and Britain, as part of a so-called Quad meeting.
Last week Russia presented the West with a list of security demands at talks that produced no breakthrough.
Repeated rounds of economic sanctions since 2014 have had scant impact on Russian policy. Moscow, Europe’s main energy supplier, calculates that the West would stop short of imposing steps serious enough to interfere with gas exports.
US and European officials say there are strong financial measures that have not been tried.
Germany on Tuesday signalled that it could grind the Nord Stream 2 project to a halt if Moscow decides to send troops into Ukrainian territory. The new natural gas pipeline stretches more than 1,200 kilometres from near St Petersburg in Russia to the Port of Greifswald in Germany, skirting Ukraine.