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Far from a de-escalation, the standoff between Russia and the US over Ukraine feels more tense each day.
President Joe Biden warned on Thursday that an attack on Ukraine could come in days.
The White House also accused Russia of conducting “Potemkin diplomacy” – a reference to the 18th-century Russian “Potemkin villages,” facades without anything behind them.
Fake diplomacy? That’s because while Russia claims to be trying to defuse the situation and pulling back, the US is seeing evidence to the contrary and warns Russia could launch a false-flag attack – something to essentially justify an invasion of Ukraine.
Possible false-flag scenarios the US anticipates include:
- Claims of provocation in the Donbas region.
- A claim of NATO activity in land or air.
- Claims of an incursion into Russian territory.
- False claims about mass graves, chemical or biological weapons activity, guerrilla activity or genocide.
Making the case. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to the United Nations Thursday and laid out the American case. He told the Security Council that Russia is laying the groundwork to justify starting a war and preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days.
“Here today, we are laying it out in great detail with the hope that by sharing what we know with the world, we can influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there’s still time,” he said.
Blinken then traveled to Munich for a global security conference, along with Vice President Kamala Harris. She will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other European leaders.
A sort of unity in the US. While the US mission is to convince world powers that Russia is the aggressor and line up support to hold the country accountable, the American politics of the Russia-Ukraine situation are different.
Republicans and Democrats, for now, sound relatively unified.
Praising Biden. Here’s Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday talking about President Joe Biden’s comments earlier in the week:
“(Biden) was right to emphasize that the world will not shrug or stand idly by if Vladimir Putin tries to invade his neighbor, or redraw the map of Europe through deadly force,” McConnell said.
He added that Biden would have “overwhelming bipartisan support to use his existing executive authorities for tough sanctions against Russia in the event of conflict.”
But there’s a difference between bipartisan agreement and actual bipartisan action.
Blaming Biden. While McConnell praised Biden and blessed his use of executive action, he blamed Biden for weakness in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he argued created a power vacuum.
“But for the catastrophe in Afghanistan, there’s not a doubt in my mind – not a doubt in my mind – that the Russians wouldn’t be on the border of Ukraine with 100,000 or more troops, had we not indicated to the rest of the world we were pulling the plug on Afghanistan and going home,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
A failed sanctions effort. Separately, lawmakers have so far failed to pass a bipartisan slate of sanctions against Russia.
A sanctions bill likely won’t pass before a Russian invasion of Ukraine, if one should occur. The House and Senate are both scheduled to be out of session next week around the Presidents Day holiday. The Senate, however, did approve a symbolic resolution condemning Russia Thursday evening.
The resolution, which almost didn’t make it to the floor after Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul objected to it, condemns Russia for its aggressive actions toward Ukraine.
Still, there are several differences between the parties, in particular over:
- How to address the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which Russia wants to install around Ukraine to pump natural gas into Germany.
- How to punish Russian bankers.
Democrats argue the differences are technical.
Here’s Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, speaking on Capitol Hill Thursday:
“We actually have agreed on the package,” Kaine told reporters. “It’s just that we have a different view on what should trigger the sanctions – should we do it before an invasion or should we wait for invasion – but both sides are together, Democrat and Republican, on what we will do.”
A GOP proposal. Republicans in the Senate, while not agreeing to a bipartisan proposal, introduced their own sanctions bill Tuesday, which Democrats slammed as political posturing since it includes a lot of things that were in the bipartisan bill.
The Republican bill is called the Never Yielding Europe’s Territory (NYET) Act.
NYET. Get it? It’s Russian for “no.”
It would “mandate sanctions” on the Nord Stream 2 project “without a waiver should Russia invade,” a release about the Act said, and it would sanction Putin’s “cronies, enablers and major banks,” along with providing $500 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine. Read more from CNN’s Lauren Fox.
Republicans like Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, who introduced the GOP bill, say if there is an invasion, a bipartisan sanctions bill will pass quickly.
There are steps the White House is taking even without a sanctions package. On Monday, Blinken announced up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine.
The US, under executive authority, will also double “funding for US military exercises in Europe,” and create a new State Department Foreign Military Financing program for Eastern Europe to “help European allies strengthen their own defensive capabilities,” according to a release.
“A new normal.” There may be plenty of time for Republicans and Democrats to come together on Russia and Ukraine.
NATO’s Stoltenberg told CNN on Thursday the West will have to live, on some level, with this more aggressive Russia.
“Regardless of whether Russia invades Ukraine or not, what we have seen so far I’m afraid represents a new normal because what we have seen is that Russia has been willing to amass large number of combat ready troops to try to intimidate and threaten Ukraine, but also try to threaten NATO allies,” he said.
Global coordination. Biden will convene a call on Friday with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, European Union and NATO to discuss the Ukraine crisis, a source familiar with the plans told CNN.
A White House official told the pool, “The President will speak with trans-Atlantic leaders on a phone call tomorrow afternoon about Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy.”
This story has been updated with additional information Thursday.
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc, Kaitlan Collins, Ellie Kaufman and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.