United we stand: PM and Biden in last push for peace amid Russia's invasion threat

14 February 2022, 13:23 | Updated: 15 February 2022, 08:22

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Boris Johnson and Joe Biden have agreed there is still a "crucial window for diplomacy" with Russia amid fears of a an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

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The pair also repeated warnings of "far reaching damage for both Russia and the world" if Ukraine is invaded.

US sources have said an invasion could take place as early as Wednesday.

The Prime Minister will lead a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee on Tuesday as he maintained there is still time for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis.

Mr Johnson cut short a planned overnight stay in Cumbria on Monday and returned to Downing Street to chair the meeting, No 10 said, after receiving a briefing on the latest intelligence from UK spy chiefs.

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A Downing Street spokesperson said: "The Prime Minister and President Biden... agreed there remained a crucial window for diplomacy and for Russia to step back from its threats towards Ukraine.

"The leaders emphasised that any further incursion into Ukraine would result in a protracted crisis for Russia, with far reaching damage for both Russia and the world.

"They agreed that western allies must remain united in the face of Russian threats, including imposing a significant package of sanctions should Russian aggression escalate.

"They also reiterated the need for European countries to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, a move which, more than any other, would strike at the heart of Russia’s strategic interests.

"The Prime Minister and President Biden agreed to remain in close contact as the situation evolves."

A readout from the White House added that "ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts in response to Russia's continued military build-up" were being reviewed.

The leaders "discussed efforts to reinforce the defensive posture on Nato's eastern flank and underlined the continued close coordination among Allies and partners, including on readiness to impose severe consequences on Russia".

It follows Mr Johnson's earlier comments on Monday that the "evidence is pretty clear" that Russia is planning to invade, with him urging the country to avoid a "disastrous" invasion.

He said Mr Putin needed to understand the economic and political consequences if he launched an invasion.

Mr Johnson, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace are expected to travel to Europe later this week as part of intensive diplomatic efforts to prevent war.

On a visit to Scotland, the Prime Minister said: "This is a very, very dangerous, difficult situation, we are on the edge of a precipice but there is still time for President Putin to step back."

He said it was "very important" that the West shows "a united front, particularly when it comes to economic sanctions".

Asked if he agreed with Mr Wallace's claims there was a "whiff of Munich" and appeasement in actions against Mr Putin so far, he added: "I think... [he] is absolutely right to say it's very important that we've got to be strong, and we've got to be resolute and we've got to be united."

The minister received some criticism after he made the comment in a Sunday Times interview, in a reference to the agreement that allowed German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 but failed to prevent the Second World War.

Mr Johnson said Europe needed to cuts its reliance on Russian hydrocarbons - including the Nord Stream pipelines.

He said "the world needs to learn the lesson of 2014" when not enough was done to move away from Russian gas and oil following the Russian activity in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

"What I think all European countries need to do now is get Nord Stream out of the bloodstream," he added.

"Yank out that that hypodermic drip feed of Russian hydrocarbons that is keeping so many European economies going.

"We need to find alternative sources of energy... and get ready to impose some very, very severe economic consequences on Russia."

Ms Truss, who on Monday afternoon chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee, later said an invasion could be launched "almost immediately".

She said she still hoped for a diplomatic solution, telling reporters: "That is why the Prime Minister and I are travelling around Europe this week, that is why we are working to persuade the Russians to remove their troops from the border, because a war would be disastrous."

Describing Russia as "the aggressor", she warned: "They need to de-escalate because it will be a cost to Russia if they invade Ukraine, both in terms of the cost of a long-running war, but also the sanctions that we would impose, which would be severe, and would target oligarchs and it would target companies across Russia."

She also claimed Germany had been "clear" that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would not go ahead if Russia invaded Ukraine.

Mr Biden has said the Russia-Germany pipeline, which has been built but is not yet operating, would be stopped if there was an invasion but Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been less explicit about the situation.

Ms Truss told reporters: "The Germans, and indeed the Americans, have been very clear that Nord Stream 2 would not go ahead in the event of a Russian incursion on Ukraine."

It comes after Armed Forces minister James Heappey told LBC Russia has the capacity to mount a "full-scale invasion" of Ukraine with "no notice" if there is "political will in Moscow".

"If you look at the force dispositions, there is a very, very significant build-up of troops in the bottom corner of Russia and in Belarus," Mr Heappey warned.

"Potentially there are opportunities for at least three separate avenues of advance."

Ukranian diplomat Vasyl Filipchuk, also told LBC Russia would be "insane and stupid" to invade Ukraine.

He said foreign troops would be "met with strong resistance and not flowers".

Mr Johnson, Ms Truss and Mr Wallace are all due to take part in meetings with international counterparts to discuss the crisis later this week.

The UK and other Nato allies have urged their citizens to flee Ukraine and some airlines have cancelled flights amid growing concerns that the estimated 130,000 Russian troops amassed on the border could be poised to attack.

A key juncture in western diplomatic efforts this week is Mr Scholz's Moscow meeting with Mr Putin on Tuesday.

No 10 did not set out which world leaders the Prime Minister was hoping to talk to or where he plans to travel before the week is over, but it was understood he is keen to engage with Nordic and Baltic countries.

Ms Truss is also expected to visit the continent while Mr Wallace will head to Brussels for a meeting of Nato defence ministers on Wednesday to discuss their response to the crisis.

What Downing Street described as a "critical juncture" in trying to cool Russian aggression comes at a difficult time for Mr Johnson domestically, with critics saying he is distracted by the police investigation into the partygate row.

The Prime Minister this week must answer a legal questionnaire sent to him by officers investigating allegations of lockdown-breaching parties, which could ultimately see him being fined if he is found to have broken the law.

Moscow denies it is planning an invasion and Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Mr Biden's White House of stoking "hysteria".