MUNICH — United States Vice President Kamala Harris warned Russia on Saturday that it will face “unprecedented” financial penalties if it invades Ukraine, and predicted that such an attack would draw European allies closer to the United States. The world is at “a decisive moment in history,” she told Ukraine’s president, who said he just wants peace for his nation.
Harris spoke at the annual Munich Security Conference the day after US President Joe Biden said he was “convinced” that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade neighboring Ukraine.
“Let me be clear, I can say with absolute certainty: If Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States, together with our allies and partners, will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs,” Harris said.
Harris aimed to make the case to a largely European audience that the West has “strength through unity,” and that an invasion would likely lead to an even bigger NATO presence on Russia’s doorstep.
Later, at the start of a meeting with Ukraine’s leader, Harris called it “a decisive moment in history” and told Volodymyr Zelensky, “Any threat to your country we take seriously.” He responded: “We clearly understand what is going on. This is our land. We want peace.”
He also said he needs Western allies to take “specific steps,” alluding to Ukraine’s requests for even more military and economic assistance. Zelensky also noted that with Russian troops at his country’s borders, Ukraine’s army is in fact “defending all of Europe.”
Also speaking during Saturday’s conference, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanded Western unity over Russia’s threats to Ukraine, warning any invasion would send a “shock” around the world, including in Asia.
“If Ukraine is invaded, the shock will echo around the world,” Johnson added, warning in particular of the impact on Taiwan, shortly after Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi addressed the conference.
Russian success in such an invasion would send the message to every other power that “aggression pays and that might is right,” he said, urging Europe to commit to “strategic endurance” in its energy policy, diplomacy, and military budgets.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014, and pro-Russia separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the country’s east for almost eight years. The US and the European Union previously sanctioned Russia over its seizure of Crimea.
Western fears of an invasion have escalated in recent months as Russia amassed more than 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders.
Harris said the Biden administration, along with its allies, had tried to engage with Moscow in good faith to find a diplomatic resolution, but that effort was not reciprocated by the Kremlin.
“Russia continues to say it is ready to talk while at the same time it narrows the avenues for diplomacy,” Harris said. “Their actions simply do not match their words.”
Harris credited European allies for speaking with a largely unified voice as the latest Ukraine crisis has unfolded. The vice president said Republicans and Democrats in Washington — who rarely agree on many major issues — are generally in agreement on the necessity of confronting Putin.
“We didn’t all start out in the same place,” Harris said. “We came together and are now speaking with a unified voice. And that voice was a function of not only dialogue and debate, some concessions, but also the practical realization of the moment that we are in, which is that we are looking at a sovereign nation that may very well be on the verge of being invaded yet again.”
Harris on Friday met in Munich with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who stressed that a US increase in its troop presence on the eastern edge of NATO is necessary.
The White House has not yet said whether it will fulfill those requests, but Harris suggested in her address on Saturday that an invasion could lead to a bolstered American presence.
“The imposition of these sweeping and coordinated measures will inflict great damage on those who must be held accountable. And we will not stop with economic measures,” Harris said. “We will further reinforce our NATO allies on the eastern flank.”
Biden and other US officials have offered increasingly dire warnings that the window for diplomacy is narrow.
Biden told reporters Friday that he believes Putin has decided to invade in the coming days, taking military action that could go far beyond the disputed Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and include the capital of Kyiv.
The vice president was scheduled to meet later Saturday with Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
Harris noted in her remarks that “not since the end of the Cold War” has the Munich conference “convened under such dire circumstances.”