The U.S. is "deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
In the most urgent warning yet, Blinken said the U.S. and its NATO allies would impose a steep cost on Moscow if it attacked its neighbor.
But that cost would be economic and political, with the top U.S. diplomat threatening "a range of high-impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past." But he and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stopped short of mentioning the use of force to defend Ukraine, which is not a member of the military alliance.
"We don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know he's putting in place the capacity to do so in short order," Blinken said -- the clearest statement to date of Western worries of an invasion, as Russia masses approximately 100,000 troops, along with heavy equipment, near Ukraine's border.
Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a summit on European security Thursday, as well as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
It will be the latest high-level engagement between the U.S. and Russia amid heightened concern about Russia threatening Ukraine. President Joe Biden deployed his CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow last month to convey U.S. concerns in person, Blinken said, declining to specify whether he would lay out precisely what those "high-impact" sanctions would be with Lavrov.
Russia has denied it is mounting any attack on Ukraine and instead accused Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO of menacing forces near its borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday his government is seeking guarantees from the West that it not move troops or weapons systems "in close vicinity to the Russian territory," while Lavrov called the presence of Ukrainian troops "alarming."
Blinken literally laughed off that latter comment, telling reporters after a two-day NATO summit in Latvia that it was "perplexing," "profoundly wrong" and "misguided."
"The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia would be a bad joke if things weren't so serious," he added, warning that Russia may "claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along."
To that end, Blinken said, Russia has not only massed combat forces, it's also "intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor" -- increasing anti-Ukrainian propaganda by more than tenfold to levels not seen since its 2014 invasion.
Russia's "plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large-scale military operations," he added -- the former, a possible reference to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's claim that Russia is behind a potential coup attempt to overthrow his government. The top U.S. diplomat for Europe said last Friday that the U.S. was in touch with Ukrainian authorities "to obtain additional information" and verify Zelenskiy's statement.