January 25, 2022
By Humeyra Pamuk, Steve Holland and Dmitry Antonov
WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Western leaders stepped up preparations for any Russian military action in Ukraine on Tuesday, with the United States focusing on how to protect energy supplies and Britain urging other European nations to get economic sanctions ready.
Tensions remained high after NATO said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to a Russian troop build-up near its border with Ukraine.
Russia, which denies planning an attack, said it was watching with “great concern”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow’s line that the crisis is being driven by U.S. and NATO actions, not the Russian troop build-up.
The United States and the European Union have threatened economic sanctions if Russia launches an invasion and Western leaders say unity is paramount, though differences have emerged among European nations over how best to respond.
“It is absolutely vital that … the West is united now,because it is our unity now that will be much more effective indeterring any Russian aggression,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament, urging “our European friends” to be ready to deploy sanctions as soon as there was any incursion.
He said Britain was discussing the possibility of banning Russia from the Swift global payments system with the United States, one of many potential measures to punish Moscow if it launches an offensive.
In Washington, senior Biden administration officials said the United States was in talks with major energy-producing countries and companies around the world over a potential diversion of supplies to Europe if Russia invades Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters on a call, the officials did not name the countries or companies involved in discussions to protect supplies to Europe but said they included a broad range of suppliers, including sellers of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
“We’ve been working to identify additional volumes of non- Russian natural gas from various areas of the world; from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States,” a senior administration official said, on condition of anonymity.
“Correspondingly, we’re… in discussions with major natural gas producers around the globe to understand their capacity and willingness to temporarily surge natural gas output and to allocate these volumes to European buyers.”
The European Union depends on Russia for around a third of its gas supplies. Any interruptions to Russia’s gas supply to Europe would exacerbate an existing energy crisis caused by shortages.
“To ensure Europe is able to make it through the winter and spring, we expect to be prepared to ensure alternative supplies covering a significant majority of the potential shortfall,” the official said.
Russia has tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine and is demanding security guarantees from the West, including a promise by NATO never to admit Ukraine. Moscow sees the former Soviet republic as a buffer between Russia and NATO countries.
The tensions over Ukraine have been felt on financial markets and the price of oil in recent days. An escalated conflict between Russia and Ukraine would be likely to further increase energy costs for many countries, keeping headline inflation rates elevated for longer, said Gita Gopinath, First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.
In a sign of concern that an attack may come soon, Canada said it was temporarily withdrawing families of its diplomats in Ukraine and Sweden’s foreign ministry said it was advising against all non-essential travel to Ukraine, and all travel to Crimea and two regions in eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department has said it is ordering diplomats’ family members to leave and Britain has said it is withdrawing some staff and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv.
The United States has committed more than $650 million of security assistance to Ukraine in the past year and more than $2.7 billion in total since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
A U.S. plane carrying military equipment and munitions landed in Kyiv on Tuesday, the third shipment of a $200-million security package to shore up Ukraine.
The U.S. Department of Defense said on Monday about 8,500 U.S. troops had been put on heightened alert and were awaiting orders to deploy to the region, should Russia invade Ukraine.
So far, NATO has about 4,000 troops in multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units.
U.S. officials said on Monday the Pentagon was finalising efforts to identify specific units that it could deploy to NATO’s eastern flank.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing By Timothy Heritage; Editing by Gareth Jones)