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On Saturday, Western leaders called on Vladimir Putin not to give up on diplomacy amid warnings that the Russian president has already moved to invade Ukraine.
Speaking at the annual Munich security conference, EU, US and NATO leaders insisted that a standoff over Russian troops threatening Ukraine must not end in war – although they stressed that armed conflict remained a distinct possibility and that Western allies stood ready to respond with force.
“It’s not too late for Russia to change course, step back, stop preparing for war and start working for a peaceful solution,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.
“But,” he added, “the risk of conflict is real.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who met Putin on Tuesday, made a similar note.
“The risk has by no means been ruled out,” he said.
“At the same time,” he added, “it will always be our task – and will continue to be our task – to use any opening, however small, to pave the way for negotiations.”
The comments come just hours after US President Joe Biden revealed he was “convinced” that Putin had “made the decision” to invade Ukraine. And they represent what could be an increasingly futile attempt to keep Putin at the negotiating table. In recent months, Moscow has surrounded Ukraine with more than 100,000 troops and threatened to take ‘military-technical’ action unless Western allies withdraw from Eastern Europe and promise never to admit Ukraine to NATO – demands considered non-starting in the West.
“Russia continues to pretend it is ready for talks, while narrowing the avenues of diplomacy,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said. “Their actions just don’t match their words.”
The crisis has intensified over the past two days as shelling has escalated in Ukraine’s disputed Donbass region, where Kiev has been fighting Russian-backed separatists for years. Western leaders were quick to point out that the growing violence fits the pattern of fabricated provocation that Putin could use to justify a military strike or invasion.
“These are dangerous days for Europe,” Stoltenberg said, noting that Moscow has “so far shown no signs of withdrawal or de-escalation,” despite the Kremlin’s occasional statement that it was withdrawing some troops. “On the contrary, Russia’s military build-up continues.”
A senior US official on Friday publicly announced the estimated number of Russian forces lining up for a potential attack at between 169,000 and 190,000. That figure appears to include separatist fighters Russia has backed in eastern Ukraine since its last invasion in 2014, who could be important players in a new invasion.
Stoltenberg described the Russian troop build-up as “the biggest military build-up since the Cold War.”
“We shouldn’t be naïve, it’s of utmost importance,” Scholz said. “You have to see what you can see. We cannot ignore it.
Yet Scholz reiterated what has become his argument for a diplomatic path with Russia: Ukraine’s NATO membership is not on the agenda, and there is place to negotiate arms control and transparency measures.
“There is no pending decision on the matter,” he said of Ukraine’s NATO membership, while affirming the country’s right to join if it and the allies of NATO agreed.
The United States has also stressed that it is willing to discuss issues such as new arms control agreements.
“We encouraged and engaged Russia,” Harris said.
But Russia has said such overtures ignore the country’s main concerns – the military expansion of NATO and the United States in Eastern Europe from the 1990s. And on this point, the Western allies are remained firm on the fact that they will not negotiate.
The stalemate has sparked heightened fears that Russia is about to launch a deadly invasion.
Western leaders on Saturday reiterated their long-held vow that if such an attack occurs, they will respond with “swift, tough and united” economic sanctions, as Harris put it.
And, Harris added, “we won’t stop at economic measures.” The United States will “further strengthen our NATO allies on the eastern flank.”
The United States and some of its allies have also already shipped weapons to Ukraine. But the United States has ruled out sending American troops to Ukraine if Russia attacks. Germany has also so far refused to send weapons to Ukraine.
Overall, the leaders said Putin’s actions had only served to strengthen unity among Western allies.
“If the Kremlin’s goal is to have less NATO on its borders, it will only have more NATO,” Stoltenberg said.