US pushes unity on Ukraine ahead of key Russia meetings

06 January 2022 | International

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON

In a display of unity, the Biden administration and its European allies are beginning a series of meetings aimed at showing Russia that an invasion of Ukraine would be met with a forceful response.

Using virtually identical language, the US and its European allies have several times in the past month issued joint and individual messages advising Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country will face “massive consequences” and “severe costs” if he goes ahead with further military intervention in Ukraine.

Yet the severity of the response hinges largely on Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and a diplomatic heavyweight within the 27-nation European Union. Potential actions — be they economic, diplomatic or political — will top the agenda in talks in Washington on Wednesday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

The Blinken-Baerbock meeting will follow a telephone call last week between President Joe Biden and Putin, a conversation Sunday between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and a group discussion Tuesday among Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his counterparts from the five Nordic nations.

It will precede a flurry of meetings involving NATO foreign ministers, senior US and Russian officials, the NATO-Russia Council and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe set for next week.

Baerbock, the top diplomat in the first German government in 16 years not headed by Angela Merkel, has struck a tougher tone on Russia than her predecessor. She has warned that Moscow will pay a “high political and economic price” if it makes any militaristic moves against Ukraine.

Ahead of her trip to Washington, Baerbock underlined the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance and its basis in common values and respecting international law. She said Germany is “determined to act together to defend the peaceful order in Europe,” with particular attention to Russia.

“With regard to Russia, the common message of the European and American governments is clear. Russian actions come with a clear price tag (and) the only way out of the crisis is through dialogue,” she said.

“We have made this very clear time and again to the Russian government in recent days and weeks,” she said. “We’re now going into a decisive phase, in which there will be important talks at various levels. And even though the formats of the talks vary, our message as trans-Atlantic partners to the government in Moscow is always the same.”

Sanctions

Western officials have hinted at any number of economically crippling sanctions that could be imposed should Russia act. Those include near total cut-off from the international financial system and steps toward greater NATO integration with non-allied European nations.

As the Biden administration moves to build international consensus around a set of possible punitive measures, Germany is clearly the linchpin. Securing its support will be key to both messaging and implementation of whatever is decided.

Germany’s business ties with Russia could provide leverage, but they could also prove a hindrance for forging a united front toward Moscow. Despite strong criticism from the US, the centre-left government of new Chancellor Olaf Scholz hasn’t shown itself willing to block the start of natural gas deliveries through a newly built pipeline linking Russia and Germany — a move that would hurt both countries.

Germany has adopted a less confrontational stance toward Russia compared with many other European nations. Under Merkel, it persuaded the Biden administration last year not to impose sanctions on the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that many believe will leave Europe beholden to Russia for energy and Ukraine more vulnerable.

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