- Russia has massed troops near Ukraine's border
- Top US diplomat Blinken holds talks with allies
Western countries insisted on Thursday they would be unified in responding strongly to any Russian assault on Ukraine, shifting into damage control after US President Joe Biden suggested divisions about how to react to a "minor incursion".
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine, and Western states fear Moscow is planning a new assault on a country it invaded in 2014. Russia denies it is planning an attack, but says it could take unspecified military action if a list of demands are not met, including a promise from NATO never to admit Kyiv as a member.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Biden said he expected Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch some kind of action, and appeared to suggest Washington and its allies could argue over the response if Moscow stopped short of a major invasion.
"My guess is he will move in," Biden said. "He has to do something."
"Russia will be held accountable if it invades - and it depends on what it does," Biden said. "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and what to not do, et cetera," Biden said, adding that an invasion would be a "disaster" for Russia.
Shortly after the nearly two-hour news conference ended, the White House rowed back from any suggestion that a smaller-scale Russian military incursion would meet a weaker US response.
"If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
European allies made similar remarks stressing a unified position, and threatening strong financial measures against Russia for any assault.
Europe would respond to a new attack "with massive economic and financial sanctions. The transatlantic community stands firm in this," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the EU executive.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Be in no doubt that if Russia were to make any kind of incursion into Ukraine, or on any scale, whatever, I think that that would be a disaster, not just for Ukraine, but for Russia. It would be a disaster for the world."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Germany on Thursday, meeting French, British and German ministers ahead of talks on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
'Slip of his tongue'
With Western countries having long emphasised their united position in public, some officials privately expressed frustration at Biden's remarks, although they described it as a gaffe that was unlikely to alter Moscow's calculations.
"It was not helpful, in fact it was a gift to Putin, but we should not read too much into it. Biden has not given Moscow the green light for an attack on Ukraine. It was a slip of his tongue, and the official Western position will prevail," said one Western security source.
Another said: "I think the Russians will know how to rank Biden's remarks, they will classify it as what it was – a gaffe."
The Ukrainian government also played down Biden's remarks. "It is definitely not worth evaluating the words spoken the day before as something separate from the integral policy of the American administration," Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office, told Reuters in a message.
In Berlin, Blinken was due to give a speech that will try to cast the crisis over Ukraine as a critical moment for the rules-based international order, a State Department official said.
Moscow presented the West with a list of security demands at talks last week that produced no breakthrough.
Repeated rounds of economic sanctions since Moscow annexed Crimea and supported a separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine in 2014 have had scant impact on Russian policy, with Moscow, Europe's main energy supplier, calculating that the West would stop short of steps serious enough to interfere with gas exports.
US and European officials say there are still strong financial measures that have not been tried. Germany signalled on Tuesday that it could halt Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline from Russia that skirts Ukraine, if Moscow invades.