By Nicole Gaouette, Jennifer Hansler and Alex Marquardt, CNN
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia to stand down on its efforts to destabilize Ukraine and said there would be “severe consequences” for any Russian military action.
“We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade” Ukraine, Blinken said in remarks at the end of a North Atlantic Treaty Alliance meeting in Latvia. “We do know that he’s putting in place the capacity to do so on short order, should he so decide. So despite uncertainty about intention, and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course.”
Blinken spoke just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech that the “threat” at Russia’s western border is growing. In his own remarks, Blinken noted that the world has already seen Moscow significantly increase troops along the border and deploy misinformation to suggest Ukraine is the aggressor.
“We’ve seen this playbook before in 2014 when Russia last invaded Ukraine, then as now they significantly increased combat forces near the border,” Blinken said. “Then as now, they intensified disinformation that Ukraine is the aggressor to justified pre-planned military action.”
The top US diplomat again warned that such an action would be met with “severe consequences.”
“We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past,” he said, adding that the NATO alliance is also “prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine” and “prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank.”
Asked whether the US was considering going as far as cutting Russia off from the global financial system, Blinken declined to elaborate but said the US and allies would make sure Moscow knows.
“I’m not going to spell out today, the specifics, we will probably in time, share that with Moscow so that they can understand fully what’s at risk, what the consequences would be if they commit further aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken said. “And at the same time, we will work through all the details with our partners and allies.”
‘A bad joke’
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto that the alliance has “a wide range of options: economic sanctions, financial sanctions, political restrictions.”
Blinken’s remarks, his most forceful on the issue to date, come as he is set to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday in Stockholm, according to a State Department official.
Blinken will also meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on the margins of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Ministerial Council meeting, the official said.
Blinken and Stoltenberg spoke just hours after Putin announced he would seek talks with NATO to get assurances the alliance will not expand eastwards into Ukraine or deploy weaponry close to Russian borders. The day before, Putin said NATO military expansion close to Russia’s borders and any deployment of missile systems in Ukraine would be crossing a “red line.”
Asked about Putin’s remarks, Blinken said they would be “a bad joke if things weren’t so serious.”
Referring to NATO, Blinken said that “as a defensive alliance, we’re not a threat to Russia. We don’t have aggressive intent toward Russia. Every step that we take is designed to make sure that we have in place protective, defensive measures to protect the members of the alliance as well as to help our partners have in place the defensive needs, so that they can properly defend themselves against aggression,” Blinken said. “That is the purpose of the Alliance.”
“The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia, or for that matter that NATO represents a threat to Russia, it is profoundly wrong and misguided,” Blinken added.
Stoltenberg noted to CNN that after the first time Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO increased its defenses “with combat-ready battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance, in the Baltic countries, in Latvia … but also in the Black Sea region.”
Asked if he was saying that military options would be on the table if Russia invaded Ukraine, Stoltenberg clarified that Ukraine is not a NATO member, and therefore does not have the same security guarantees as NATO members, who have a commitment to come to each other’s defense if one member is attacked.
But Stoltenberg left the possibility of Ukraine becoming a NATO member on the table, saying that Russia does not have the right to tell Ukraine that they cannot pursue NATO membership.
“Ukraine will become a member of NATO when the 30 allies agree that Ukraine meets the NATO standards,” said Stoltenberg. “But that’s for the 30 allies to decide, not for Russia to decide.”
Blinken emphasized the fluidity of the situation in his remarks after the NATO meeting.
‘Prepare for all contingencies’
Referring to Russia’s efforts to paint Ukraine as the aggressor in order to justify military action, Blinken noted that “we’ve seen that tactic again in just the past 24 hours. And in recent weeks, we’ve also observed a massive spike — more than tenfold — in social media activity pushing anti-Ukrainian propaganda approaching levels last seen in the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.”
“Despite uncertainty about intentions and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course,” Blinken said. “The United States has been engaging intensively with allies and partners on this issue, and directly with President Putin.”
Blinken noted that CIA Director Bill Burns had traveled to Moscow at President Joe Biden’s direction to convey to Russian leadership “our concerns, our commitment to a diplomatic process and the severe consequences should Russia follow the path of confrontation and military action.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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CNN’s Michael Conte, Anna Chernova, Zahra Ullah, Chandelis Duster, Radina Gigova and Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.