Kamala Harris promises tough response to Ukraine invasion

MUNICH, Germany — Vice President Kamala Harris stood alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday, swearing American support for a nation on the brink of war shortly after warning in a speech that the United States and their allies would punish Russia if it invaded its neighbor.

“The United States stands with Ukraine,” Harris said at the start of a meeting between the two leaders and a small group of aides. “Any threat to your country, we take seriously, and we have gathered our allies and partners to speak with one voice.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris, along with Munich Security Conference President Wolfgang Ischinger, speak in Germany on Saturday. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press, billiards

Zelenskyy, speaking through an interpreter, told Harris he was ‘grateful’ for America’s support and suggested he would seek additional defense assistance even as he spoke the hope that the threat of economic sanctions from the West could lead to a diplomatic solution.

“This is our land, and the only thing we want is peace,” said Zelenskyy, who also urged the United States to immediately impose sanctions on Russia and not wait for further incursions. in Ukraine. “We are grateful to you,” he told Harris, “for understanding that sanctions could lead to a peaceful resolution of this matter.”

The symbolism of their meeting affirmed the West’s support for Ukraine as it finds itself once again threatened by Russian forces. But Zelenskyy didn’t come to Munich for the symbolism or the jokes. With his country on the brink of war, he made clear in a moving speech his frustration at the relative complacency of allies who do not look down the guns of Russian tanks.

Ukraine’s president, who has decided to travel to Germany for meetings with allies helping to bolster his country’s defenses, pointedly questioned why the United States appeared to be resisting the imposition of sanctions until troops Russians cross its borders.

“You tell me that the war will start 100% in the next few days. So what are you waiting for?” Zelenskyy, drawing attention to US officials’ claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already decided to attack.

Zelenskyy also made it clear that he had no intention of giving in to Putin, who demanded an explicit guarantee that Ukraine would not be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On the contrary, Zelenskyy declared his continued interest in NATO membership and questioned the sincerity of the United States and its allies for not appearing to fully embrace this position.

“Open doors are good, but we need answers,” Zelenskyy said, speaking at a major security conference here after meeting Harris. “If you don’t want to see us there, be honest about it.”

His speech followed his meeting with Harris and a 13-minute speech by Harris at the annual Munich Security Conference. In his remarks, Harris reiterated warnings issued in recent days by President Biden and other administration officials, outlining the consequences for Russia if Putin launches a full-scale invasion.

“Let me be clear, I can say with absolute certainty that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States, together with our allies and partners, will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs,” Harris said. at the security conference.

Russia’s buildup of forces along the Ukrainian border has also helped unify the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Harris said.

“The United States, our allies and our partners have achieved remarkable unity,” she said. “This is evident in our common recognition of threats, our united response and our determination to uphold international rules and standards.”

The speech to heads of state, defense ministers, diplomats and a bipartisan contingent of US lawmakers came after Biden told reporters on Friday he believed Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine, despite months of pressure from allies pushing him toward diplomacy. Solution.

The standoff with Russia stems from Putin’s demand that NATO agree not to admit Ukraine as a member. The United States and NATO rejected the suggestion, saying they would not agree to ban a sovereign country from seeking to join the alliance.

Putin has long expressed contempt for Ukraine’s independence from Russia and the prospect of its closer alignment with the rest of Europe. Its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 drew global condemnation and economic sanctions from the West. But the resulting punishment did not seem to deter him from considering another invasion.

In recent weeks, Putin has deployed around 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. US officials this week dismissed suggestions from Moscow that it had withdrawn some of those forces. In fact, according to US officials, the Kremlin has deployed more personnel to the region. Biden and senior administration officials have said they believe an attack is imminent.

“They’re unfolding and ready to strike,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters Saturday at a news conference in Lithuania.

Like other US officials, Austin said he remains hopeful for diplomacy. “Mr. Putin may choose another path. The United States, working closely with our allies and partners, has offered him the opportunity to seek a diplomatic solution,” Austin said.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has accepted an offer to meet later next week with his Russian counterpart, a meeting that US officials say will only happen if Moscow refrains from attacking Ukraine .

Zelensky, in a question-and-answer session after his speech, expressed appreciation for the US approach to the crisis, but made it clear that he did not accept Washington’s conclusions that war was imminent.

“The intelligence I trust is my intelligence,” the Ukrainian leader said. He noted that his military showed restraint by not responding to provocations from Russia and its allies in a way that would give the Kremlin a pretext to invade.

“We are not panicking,” Zelenskyy said. “We understand who is killing us, we understand what these military groups are, but we also understand when they fire from localities surrounded by civilians to provoke us into escalating.”

In recent days, the crisis has worsened. On Saturday, Russia conducted large-scale nuclear exercises that the Kremlin said Putin had observed from his Defense Ministry’s situation room. In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, Russian-backed separatists on Saturday ordered a full military mobilization in an enclave they control, a day after calling for a mass evacuation of residents of the region.

Denis Pushilin, head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited in a statement an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces as the reason for the protests.

Ukrainian officials have strongly denied any suggestion that they planned to launch an assault, and US officials have painstakingly sounded the alarm over Russian plans to deploy disinformation to create a pretext for war.

Harris echoed Biden’s position that Russia and allied separatists were engaging in so-called false flag operations to lay the groundwork for an invasion. The separatists claimed on Friday, for example, to have been victims of Ukrainian artillery bombardments, sabotage operations and a car bomb attack. US and Ukrainian officials say such claims are false.

“Russia will plead ignorance and innocence, it will create false pretenses for invasion, and it will amass troops and firepower for all to see,” she said. “We are now receiving reports of what appear to be provocations. And we see Russia spreading disinformation, lies and propaganda. »

Harris also met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and had more informal talks with the other world leaders gathered here.

Harris’s speech touched on similar themes to her comments Friday during meetings with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and leaders of three Baltic states that border Russia, to whom she stressed the strength of a unified alliance and the importance of defending the democratic values ​​that bind them together.

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