RIGA, Latvia -- Washington has seen "evidence" Russia could be planning an invasion on Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday (December 1), threatening Moscow with painful economic sanctions if it attacks.
Blinken accused Moscow of massing "tens of thousands of additional combat forces" near Ukraine's border as he geared up for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm over the crisis.
Ukraine's army has been locked in a simmering conflict with pro-Russian separatists in two breakaway regions bordering Russia since 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
"We're deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine. The plans include efforts to destabilise Ukraine from within as well as large scale military operations," Blinken said after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia.
"Now, we don't know whether President [Vladimir] Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he's putting in place the capacity to do so on short order, should he so decide," he said.
'Far-reaching ... consequences'
Blinken insisted "diplomacy is the only responsible way to resolve this potential crisis" but warned there would be "far-reaching and long-lasting consequences" for Moscow if it pushed ahead with any aggression.
"We 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," Blinken said.
Kyiv's Western allies have been sounding the alarm since last month over a fresh Russian troop buildup around Ukraine's borders and a possible winter invasion.
Russia has strongly denied it is plotting an attack and blames NATO for fuelling tensions.
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for direct talks with Moscow over the festering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east of his country.
"We must tell the truth that we will not be able to end the war without direct talks with Russia," Zelenskyy said during an annual address to lawmakers in Kyiv.
More than 13,000 people have been killed in the war that began in 2014 between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists, who have carved out "People's Republics" in the two breakaway regions.
Defending against Russian aggression
Putin has warned the West and Kyiv against crossing the Kremlin's "red lines", but NATO allies are "making sure that Ukraine has the means to defend itself", Blinken insisted in Riga.
The alliance will "look at what it needs to do in the event of further Russian aggression, to shore up its own defences" as NATO eyes bolstering forces along its eastern flank, he said.
Blinken said Russia was using the same "playbook" it employed when it took control of Crimea, including by intensifying "disinformation" to portray Kyiv as the "aggressor".
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also pledged the bloc "will be standing firmly and decisively with Ukraine in front of any attempt to undermine its territorial integrity and sovereignty."
"Everything has to be done in order to make clear that any aggression against Ukraine will have a strong response."
Trying to split Europe
Latvia's prime minister Wednesday accused Russia of seeking to destabilise and split Europe with the Ukraine crisis.
In an interview with AFP, Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins described the build-up as "disturbing" and said it was the latest in a series of interconnected actions by the Kremlin including limits on gas supply, its buttressing of the regime in Belarus and disinformation.
Speaking after Latvia hosted NATO foreign ministers for a meeting in Riga, Karins called for NATO to boost its presence on the eastern flank of the alliance in the face of the Russian behaviour.
"This is all part of one interconnected set of events which seems to be on some level to destabilise or to create disunity in Europe," Karins said.
On Putin's strategy, he said: "I believe also that Putin's doctrine of somehow recreating a Russian-speaking empire, somewhat similar to the Soviet Union or other certainly seems high on the agenda."
"If Russia were to get the idea that there would be no resistance, that would be a bigger risk of actual heightened military conflict," he added.
He argued that in the face of the Russian efforts to create disunity in Europe both NATO and the European Union had "pulled closely together" again and the alliance's meeting in Riga had showed this.
"NATO as a military alliance has of course a broad range of options," in case of Russian aggression, pointing to "heightened and targeted economic sanctions, probably very broad" that could be imposed.