MUNICH (REUTERS) - US Vice President Kamala Harris met Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and leaders from three Baltic nations on Friday (Feb 18) and said Russia must show it is open to diplomacy, while warning Moscow of severe consequences if it invades Ukraine.
The Russian defence ministry said earlier in the day that President Vladimir Putin would on Saturday oversee exercises by Russia's nuclear forces involving the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles. A senior US administration official called the decision "escalatory and unfortunate".
Heralding Nato unity, Harris said "an attack on one is an attack on all", and the United States and its allies are ready to respond with sanctions if Putin decides to invade Ukraine.
"We understand and we have made clear that we remain open to diplomacy. The onus is on Russia at this point, to demonstrate that it is serious in that regard," Harris said.
The United States and European countries remain on high alert should Russia create a pretext for invasion. Her comments appeared aimed at sending Putin a message the crisis has bolstered the 30-country Nato alliance's resolve to push back against any Russian aggression.
At a news conference in Moscow, Putin said Russia needs to work on increasing its economic sovereignty. He said the West would always find a pretext to impose sanctions on Moscow.
Washington estimates that Russia has likely amassed between 169,000 and 190,000 military personnel in and near Ukraine, up from about 100,000 on Jan 30, said Michael Carpenter, the permanent US representative to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Leaders from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said a show of unity, dialogue among allies, severe sanctions and reinforcement of Nato's eastern flank remain the only options to deter Russia.
"Today the ghost of war is lingering in Europe, unfortunately we have to admit it. We see possibility of military conflict in Ukraine," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.
He asked for a "permanent presence" of US troops in his country, stressing the only way to stop Russia is "deterrence". During a three-day visit to the Munich Security Conference, Harris will also meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other world leaders on Saturday.
Asked if the United States is concerned about whether Zelensky should travel to Munich for meetings, the senior administration official said, "No.
"That's really his call. It's really up to him to decide where he needs to be."