(The Hill) – The U.S. and global leaders are warning that time is running out for diplomacy to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will host Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Sholz in Moscow on Feb. 15, one of the last scheduled diplomatic meetings with a senior European leader as part of efforts by the West to tamp down tensions in the region.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Friday said the administration belives a Russian invasion of Ukraine “could begin at any time” but added he didn’t believe Putin had made a final decision to launch an attack.
President Biden is expected to speak with Putin by phone on Saturday.
European officials are echoing the Biden administration’s sense of urgency coupled with pleas for Russia to embrace diplomacy.
“We are living, to my understanding, the most dangerous moment for the security in Europe after the end of the Cold War,” European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borell said in Washington this week.
“But at the same time, we believe that there is still room for diplomacy. … Be prepared for the worst, and try to avoid it.”
Russia’s military build-up has surrounded Ukraine on three sides, with more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border; 30,000 Russian troops carrying out war games with Belarus on Ukraine’s northern border; and Russian warships moving into the Black Sea.
Sullivan on Friday said that the U.S. believes that if it happens, a Russian invasion against Ukraine is likely to begin with an aerial bombing campaign and missile attacks, followed by a ground invasion.
Russian officials have insisted they have no intention of invading Ukraine. They reject condemnations about their military movements and have criticized U.S. and European leaders as failing to take seriously their security demands, include ceasing NATO’s expansion and withdrawing NATO troops from countries that joined the alliance after 1997.
The U.S. has described such demands as non-starters while offering to talk about security concerns. But Russia has shown little indication it is open to serious diplomacy.
Putin’s recent meeting with French President Emanuel Macron, and a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, were both viewed as physically and rhetorically cold and detached.
Macron and Putin’s meeting was defined by the image of them sitting across from each other over a 13-foot table, and the French leader was reportedly kept at an intentional distance after refusing to take a Russian-administered COVID-19 test.
Russian officials then rejected Macron’s statements that the meeting yielded progress. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “in the current situation, Moscow and Paris can’t be reaching any deals,” the Associated Press reported.
The meeting between Lavrov and Truss was equally brusque, with the Russian diplomat describing their interactions as “between a dumb and a deaf person,” Reuters reported.
“It’s almost like there’s a decision in Moscow to go out of their way to be rude to foreign leaders and diplomats who visit Moscow, I don’t know how that bodes for the Shulz visit,” said Stephen Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
“It seems that every possible path for diplomacy Moscow is turning down, that’s why I fear they’re in a corner … and they’re in a position now where they either have to use military force or the Kremlin has to make a pretty embarrassing climb down.”
Sholz’s arrival in Moscow follows his meeting with Biden and lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday, where both sides made a point to emphasize U.S. and German solidarity despite conflict over the fate of a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, called Nord Stream 2.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who met with Sholz during his visit to Washington, told The Hill that she wants the German chancellor to make clear to Putin that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will terminate the pipeline.
“I think he should be very clear about the situation with Nord Stream 2 and let him know what the allies have said, that if he invades Ukraine, that Nord Stream is not going to go forward,” she said.
It’s unclear if Sholz will clearly and firmly deliver that message in Moscow. At a press conference with Biden, he failed to call out the pipeline specifically.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), suggested the chancellor is limited in what he can say publicly given his broad governing coalition in Germany’s parliament, but said Sholz had a “candid conversation” with lawmakers.
“There are certain things Sholz can say out loud, and there are certain things he can’t. I have confidence that Nord Stream 2 is not getting turned on,” Murphy said.
Senate Democrats and Republicans are divided over how to deal with the pipeline in a sanctions package against Moscow.
Republicans want to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 that Democrats say would harm U.S. relations with Germany. Efforts to produce a bipartisan sanctions package stalled in part over those differences.
“We need to send a clear message to Putin, to our allies, that we are united and that we are going to take strong action should Putin decide to invade Ukraine,” Shaheen told The Hill.
Experts say Biden has more than enough authority to inflict punishing sanctions on Russia without the legislation. The administration is tailoring a sanctions regime in coordination with allies and partners in Europe, the United Kingdom and Canada.
William Taylor, a former ambassador to Ukraine and vice president of the Russia and Europe program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that the sanctions being discussed are intended to have “an immediate, devastating effect” by targeting Putin and his inner circle. He said they will also hit the Russian people, raising the domestic political cost for Putin.
“The sanctions that we’re talking about, on big Russian banks, are devastating to normal everyday Russians,” Taylor said.
“It’s sad to say, but they won’t be able to get their pensions, they’re not going to be able to pay their credit card debts, they’re not going to be able to get their loans — this is really going to hurt Russian people. And again that’s not the purpose, the purpose is to deter Putin from doing this.”