The United States raised the alarm Tuesday on a possible Russian attack against Ukraine ahead of a whirlwind diplomatic mission by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops already massed on Ukraine's borders, Blinken flew to meet with the Ukrainians and European allies ahead of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday.
The U.S. officials said that the slow-brewing crisis was reaching a dangerous new stage.
I believe we are at a stage where Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine, according to Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary. I would say that sounded more stark than we were. In an ominous new development, a senior State Department official said there was concern that draft constitutional reforms in Belarus, an authoritarian state closely allied to Moscow, could allow the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons.
Russian troops entered the country for training exercises but at levels that the U.S. official said were far beyond normal. Russia hasn't plans to invade Ukraine, where it already seized one province in 2014 and supported separatist rebels in another region.
Moscow's build-up of offensive weaponry and troops leaves little doubt that a potential assault is being prepared as a way to back up the Kremlin's broader aim of preventing pro-Western Ukraine from leaving the Russian sphere of influence.
A pledge from the NATO alliance that it will never give Ukraine membership is something Russia demands, something NATO calls a non-starter.
Psaki blamed Russia for the crisis, saying that President Putin has created this crisis and warned that unprecedented economic sanctions would follow a Russian attack against Ukraine.
She said there was no option on the table when it comes to sanctions, because she warned of an extremely dangerous situation. Psaki stressed that this could include the halt of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
The pipeline, which has been completed but not commissioned, is seen as an important part of Europe's energy supply network, but also a crown jewel in Moscow's export capabilities.
Psaki said that stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a credible piece we hold over Russia.
Blinken's diplomatic offensive follows inconclusive talks last week in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, where Russia presented what Western governments say are unacceptable demands.
In a call with Lavrov ahead of his trip, Blinken stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
According to a readout from the Russian foreign ministry, Lavrov told Blinken that Moscow needs concrete article-by- article responses as soon as possible. He called on Blinken not to repeat speculation about the allegedly imminent Russian aggression. Lavrov said at a joint press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that there would be no further negotiations until the West responds.
In addition to barring Ukraine from being a NATO member, Moscow is demanding limits on NATO forces in current member nations like Poland and the Baltic states that were once in the Soviet bloc.
The U.S. State Department said that Blinken would meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Wednesday to reinforce the United States commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. He will hold four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany in Berlin before meeting Lavrov on Friday in Geneva.
Russia and Ukraine s neighbor Belarus on Tuesday launched snap military exercises to add to the tensions.
The Belarusian defense ministry said it was hosting the drills because of the continuing aggravation of military tensions, including on its western and southern borders.
Ukraine is located south of Belarus and east of the EU and NATO member of Poland.
Neither Moscow nor Minsk has revealed how many troops are involved, but video released by Belarus shows military vehicles including tanks being unloaded from trains.
These numbers are beyond what we would expect from a normal exercise right. The State Department official said that a normal exercise requires notification 42 days in advance.
Turkey, a NATO member, warned Moscow against invading Ukraine, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying Tuesday he intends to discuss rising tensions with Putin.
Turkey has supplied combat drones to Ukrainian forces, drawing fierce criticism from Moscow.
In parliament Monday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced that London was sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.