Blinken says Nato united on Ukraine as EU ministers prepare to meet

US secretary of state says Germans ‘share our concerns’ after navy chief’s comments rattle alliance

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said he has no doubts Germany is maintaining a united front with Nato on the Ukraine crisis, on the eve of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels where they are expected to issue a further warning to Moscow over its buildup of 100,000 troops and heavy weapons along the Ukrainian border.

There were alarm bells in Kyiv over the weekend after Germany’s navy chief, Kay-Achim Schönbach, said Vladimir Putin deserved respect and also suggested it was “nonsense” to think Russia was ready to pour troops into Ukraine. Schönbach resigned on Saturday but his remarks rattled Nato, and Blinken did a round of talkshow appearances in an attempt to dampen concerns.

“I can tell you that the Germans very much share our concerns and are resolute and being determined to respond – and to respond swiftly, effectively and in a united way,” Blinken told NBC. I have no doubts about that.”

Blinken will brief the EU ministers by video link on Monday on his talks last week with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva.

EU sources are pessimistic about the Kremlin climbing down from maximalist demands that would in effect give Russia a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. The ministers meeting on Monday, however, will not discuss specific sanctions. Instead they are expected to echo earlier EU warnings of “massive consequences” without going into specifics.

“If such a very serious development [Russian troops crossing the border] happens, the reaction will be very quick, the reaction will be extremely clear. And again it will be a question of days … not a question of weeks,” a senior EU official said.

The official predicted there would be an “even more remarkable” unity among the bloc’s 27 countries than in 2014 when sweeping economic sanctions against Russia were adopted. “Yes, there are different sensitivities, but all member states have an acute sense of what is the European Union interest, which is at the end of the day a version of their national interest,” the official said.

Behind the repeated assertions of unity, it is no secret that western allies are divided. Joe Biden’s comments that Nato allies would be “having to fight about what to do and not do” in the event of a “minor incursion” of Ukraine – comments that the White House subsequently rowed back on – were seen in Brussels as undiplomatic rather than untrue.

In the EU, where sanctions have to be agreed by unanimity, differences are emerging. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has expressed doubts about cutting off Russian banks from the Swift global payments system, one option under discussion. Poland and the Baltic states, however, think it is a mistake to take anything off the table.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, accused Germany over the weekend of not showing enough support for his country. Writing on Twitter, he expressed disappointment about Germany’s apparent hesitations on Swift, its refusal to supply offensive weapons, as well as the comments from Schönbach.

Writing before Schönbach’s resignation was reported, Kuleba said: “German partners must stop such words and actions to undermine unity and encourage Vladimir Putin to a new attack on Ukraine.”

Kuleba’s criticism of Germany’s coalition government is shared by many in the European parliament, where a large majority last month called for sanctions against Russia to encompass exclusion from Swift, which is used in more than 200 countries and territories.

“We should not be limiting the scope of various actions and thereby making it easier for Putin to have options for the violent alternative,” said Michael Gahler, a German MEP from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union party, which is not in power. Gahler, the parliament’s standing rapporteur on Ukraine, said it was “unfortunate” that Germany was not delivering offensive weapons to Ukraine.

Germany’s coalition government refuses to export weapons to conflict zones, in line with longstanding policy rooted in the country’s history.

In the event of war, Gahler also said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia to Germany should not come into operation. The MEP is urging EU officials to look into boosting gas supplies from southern pipelines and liquefied natural gas from the US.

But it is not just Germany that has raised questions about EU unity. Alarm bells were set off when it was announced last week that Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, would meet Putin on 1 February to discuss a planned Russian-built nuclear power station in Hungary, the Sputnik vaccine and Hungary’s gas supply contracts.

While potential sanctions against Russia are a closely guarded secret, it is clear there is a sliding scale of options, with the harshest measures being considered for a full-scale attack.


Army: 280,000, including 2,840 tanks and 6,920 fighting vehicles; 150 Iskander ballistic missiles; 4,684+ artillery; 1,520 surface-to-air batteries. 

Navy (just the Black Sea fleet): 6 submarines; 6 warships; 35 patrol ships. 

Air force: 1,160 combat planes, 394 attack helicopters, 714 air defence systems.


Army: 145,000, including 858 tanks and 1,184 fighting vehicles; 90 Tochka ballistic missiles; 1,818 artillery; 75+ surface-to-air batteries. 

Navy: 1 warship, 12 patrol and coastal ships. 

Air force: 125 combat planes, 35 attack helicopters; 6 medium TB2 drones; 322 air defence systems. 

Source: International Institute of Strategic Studies

Diplomats say a large-scale invasion is likely to make an EU decision simpler, as it would bring the bloc together in a large-scale response, just as the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014 bolstered unity on sweeping economic sanctions. The EU would face a more complex choice if Russian pursues other forms of aggression.

Countries will also weigh how sanctions would affect their economic interests. “Individual member states are more generous with the sanctions that hurt them less than others,” a senior diplomat said. “That is the name of the game a little bit.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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