White House reiterates that US is ready to act if Russia invades Ukraine
By Natasha Bertrand, CNN
(CNN) -- The Biden administration on Thursday reiterated its warnings to Russia over a potential invasion of Ukraine, with one senior administration official telling reporters that the US is "ready to act if and when we need to."
"We have been clear that there will be significant consequences" if Russia attacks, the official said. The penalties would be coordinated closely with US allies and partners and would severely damage Russia's economy, the official said. Such a move would also result in NATO capabilities being moved closer to Russia.
In a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss used similar language, emphasizing that any incursion would be "a massive strategic mistake and would be met with strength, including coordinated sanctions with our allies." She condemned Russia's "aggressive and inflammatory rhetoric" against Ukraine and NATO, adding that the UK's support for Ukraine was "unwavering."
The US and Russia both indicated on Thursday that the ball is in the other's court when it comes to deterring an invasion of Ukraine, showing little sign that a diplomatic agreement is imminent as Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to mass forces near Ukraine's border -- despite a direct warning by President Joe Biden earlier this month to de-escalate.
Speaking just hours after Putin's marathon year-end news conference, in which he said Russia's actions will depend on the US's and NATO's "unconditional ensuring of Russia's security today and in the future," the US official said the Biden administration is prepared to discuss some of Russia's concerns.
But the official said Russia has made some demands "that they know we can never agree to." And in an apparent rebuke of Russian officials' insistence in recent days that it would engage only in bilateral talks with the US, the official said any dialogue "must also take place in full coordination with our allies."
Still, the official said, "the Biden administration is willing to engage with Russia through multiple channels as soon as early January." A date and time for the discussions has not been set yet.
Putin blames West for growing tensions
In his annual year-end news conference on Thursday, Putin deflected when asked whether Russia plans to invade Ukraine. "How would the Americans react if, on their frontier with Canada, we deployed our missiles?" he told reporters. "It's a question of security, and you know our red lines."
"They just deceived us blatantly. Five waves of NATO expansion. And there you go -- they're now in Romania and Poland, with weapons systems," Putin added.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on Putin's comments on Thursday: "Well, facts are a funny thing, and facts make clear that the only aggression we're seeing at the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military buildup by the Russians and the bellicose rhetoric from the leader of Russia."
Psaki added that NATO "is a defensive alliance, not an aggressive alliance. There is no evidence to the contrary, to suggest anything to the contrary, from the United States or NATO members, and of course our efforts are to work with and defend our NATO partners."
Adding to the flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the crisis, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with both Truss and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday about the Russian aggression and the consequences they would be prepared to impose in the event of an invasion.
The White House said national security adviser Jake Sullivan had spoken Thursday with Ukrainian Head of Presidential Administration Andriy Yermak, discussing "their shared concerns and common approach regarding Russia's military build-up near Ukraine's border." The White House statement said Sullivan also had "underscored the United States' unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Aggressive moves by Moscow
More Russian military units have been sent to the border area in recent days, sources familiar with the intelligence tell CNN. The latest US intelligence assessments place more than 50 so-called "Battalion Tactical Groups" deployed on and around the Ukraine border.
US and Ukrainian officials have also seen evidence that Russia has begun diverting commercial air and rail systems to support the military effort, though similar air and rail activity was visible in the spring during Russia's last military buildup, which was ultimately pulled back.
Russia has been demanding security guarantees from the US and NATO, including a binding pledge that NATO won't expand farther east and will not allow Ukraine to join the military alliance, according to a draft proposal posted online last week by Russia's Foreign Ministry. The senior administration official told reporters on Thursday that "we don't plan to negotiate in public" and declined to say which aspects of Russia's proposals were open to negotiation.
"I expect we will have our substantive response in those talks" in January, the official said. "We have not responded substantively to the proposals that have been made other than to say ... clearly there are some things that have been proposed that we will never agree to, and I think the Russians probably know that on some level. We think there are other areas where we may be able to explore what's possible."
This story has been updated with further developments Thursday.
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