Senior U.S. officials defended their decision to hold off on crippling sanctions of Russia ahead of its expected invasion of Ukraine, as President Biden huddled with top White House national security officials about the crisis and Russia kept in place thousands of troops it has deployed in neighboring Belarus despite earlier promises to withdraw them by Sunday.
Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Biden’s assessment that Putin has made a decision to invade within days. Blinken said that follows a Russian playbook in which Moscow launches provocations and then cites them as justification for aggression.
“Everything leading up to an actual invasion appears to be taking place,” Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
But Blinken and other European officials are still leaving open the door for a diplomatic solution, and French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to broker a last-minute cease-fire deal.
Although senior U.S. officials say they believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a decision to invade, Blinken said they will “use every opportunity and every minute we have” to see if Putin can be dissuaded. Blinken has sought to meet again with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week. “The plan is still to do that — unless Russia invades in the meantime,” Blinken said.
Biden convened a rare Sunday meeting of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room with top advisers including Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Harris called in from Air Force Two on her way back to Washington from Munich, an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Biden’s schedule changed several times, with him canceling travel to his home state of Delaware for Presidents’ Day to stay in the White House.
Meanwhile, more than 150,000 Russian forces are amassed at the Ukrainian border, marking the largest military buildup in Europe since the end of World War II. The move to extend military exercises in Belarus drew the concern of Western officials, who have noted the country offers the Kremlin a shortened path to assault the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from the north.
Blinken responded Sunday, saying that the United States and European partners have built a “massive package of sanctions” against Russia, and that the point of them is to deter Russia from going to war.
“As soon as you trigger them, that deterrent is gone,” Blinken said. “And until the last minute, as long as we can try to bring a deterrent effect to this, we’re going to try to do that.”
Harris, speaking to reporters after attending a security conference in Munich, said officials planned “some of the greatest sanctions, if not the strongest, that we’ve ever issued,” and said they would “exact absolute harm for the Russian economy and their government” if Russia invades.
Harris warned that even though the Biden administration has ruled out sending U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine, the crisis could affect Americans.
“In this situation, that may relate to energy costs, for example,” Harris said. “But we are taking very specific and appropriate, I believe, steps to mitigate what that cost might be if it happens.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also defended the decision to wait on triggering new sanctions. While what is planned is “unprecedented,” Kirby said, Russia has not yet invaded.
“If you punish somebody for something they haven’t done yet, then they might as well just go ahead and do it,” Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So, we’re holding that in advance and we’re hoping that that could affect the calculus of Mr. Putin.”
The discussions about sanctions came as the international community waited to see whether Putin would unleash an assault on Kyiv and the human suffering that would go with it.
Austin, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” warned that Putin could take control of the capital city very quickly.
“We see a lot of tanks and armored vehicles there. We see a lot of artillery. We see rocket forces,” Austin said in an interview recorded on Friday while he was in Poland. “If he employs that kind of combat power, it will certainly create enormous casualties within the civilian population.”
Russia’s continuing bellicose posture and steady artillery fire attacks in the eastern separatist regions of Ukraine have dimmed hopes for a diplomatic resolution to the standoff.
Still, Macron spoke with Putin for about 90 minutes on Sunday, according to Kremlin pool reports. Macron’s office said that the two leaders agreed to resume diplomatic discussions through the Normandy Format talks, an arrangement established seven years ago by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to resolve conflict in eastern Ukraine, and for the French and Russian foreign ministers to meet in the coming days.
The Kremlin’s statement was more vague, saying that “taking into account the acuteness of the current state of affairs, the presidents considered it expedient to intensify the search for solutions to diplomatic means.”
Biden spoke with Macron in a separate call for about 15 minutes, and Macron also called British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday evening.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia was the “last country” to speak of war. Peskov called on the United States and NATO military alliance to see reason and ask themselves why Russia would attack anyone. He added that the West is fueling hysteria with claims of a Russian attack, even as Russian troops and weapons appeared to be moving closer to the Ukrainian border.
Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, said during a contentious interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Russia has withdrawn a lot of troops from the Kaliningrad area “and nobody even sent us a thank you.” Kaliningrad is nestled between Poland and Lithuania and does not border Ukraine.
Antonov denied that there are plans to invade and said that Russia has the right to deploy where it wants on its own territory.
“Russian troops are on sovereign Russian territory,” Antonov said, overlooking the Russian forces it also has in Belarus and Moldova, another former Soviet state. “I would like to emphasize once again that this is our own territory. Can you even imagine that Russia will impose on the United States not to deploy your forces in Florida or in San Francisco?”
Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, said during a separate interview on the same program that over the last few days, Ukraine has seen a stark difference between what Russian officials have claimed and done.
“While preparing to defend our country, we’re using every possibility to still choose the diplomatic path and force Russia to choose the diplomatic path,” Markarova said. “We are calling not only on the aggressor, which is Russia, but also on all of our friends and allies to get together and use every opportunity to still deter Russia from invading.”
Sean Sullivan, Ashley Parker, Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.