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U.S. President Joe Biden gestures during a meeting with his Infrastructure Implementation Task Force in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington on Jan. 20.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

The Biden administration spent Thursday trying to clarify its position about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, rattling nerves in this country ahead of a Friday meeting between top U.S. and Russian diplomats that many view as a last chance to prevent a war.

A day after he seemed to suggest that the United States would tolerate a “minor incursion” into Ukraine by Russian forces, President Joe Biden said the U.S. and its allies would respond with tough sanctions to “any” Russian aggression against its neighbour. “If any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the White House. “If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

During a Wednesday news conference, Mr. Biden appeared to say that there would be different U.S. responses to a “minor incursion” as opposed to a full-scale Russian invasion. Mr. Biden also said that he expected Mr. Putin, who has amassed an invasion-sized force around Ukraine, would indeed order an attack.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will meet Friday in Geneva, Switzerland, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, suggested that diplomacy was unlikely to provide a way out of the crisis.

Russia, which says the repeated expansions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over the past three decades pose a threat to its security, has demanded a binding guarantee that its neighbour Ukraine will never be allowed to join the 30-country military alliance. The U.S. and its allies say Moscow cannot have a veto over who does and doesn’t join NATO.

“These are difficult issues we are facing, and resolving them won’t happen quickly,” Mr. Blinken said. “I certainly don’t expect we’ll solve them in Geneva.”

The Blinken-Lavrov meeting will be the fourth time in less than two weeks that Western and Russian officials have met to discuss the Ukraine crisis. Russian diplomats have said they are expecting Mr. Blinken to deliver a written reply to the Kremlin’s proposals, which were published last month. In addition to the demand that Ukraine never join NATO, Moscow has called for the alliance to withdraw all troops and equipment from Eastern Europe. Mr. Blinken has said he does not intend to deliver a written response.

Mr. Blinken said he would instead tell Mr. Lavrov that Russia would face a “swift, severe” response from the U.S. and its allies if it attacked Ukraine. Harsh new economic penalties would likely follow any military action, as well as the deployment of additional U.S. military might to protect eastern NATO allies such as Poland and Romania.

While Russia has faced Western sanctions since 2014, when it seized and annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine, Mr. Biden has suggested the U.S. and its allies would go much further in the event of fresh aggression. Measures being considered include cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international banking system, as well as barring the export of high-tech goods to the country.

Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, on her own diplomatic tour of key European capitals, said Russia had two options. “They can choose meaningful dialogue, or … severe consequences,” she said after meeting European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Brussels. If Russia attacked Ukraine, “Canada will be ready to take additional measures, particularly with respect to the financial sector,” Ms. Joly said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions targeting four Ukrainians – two pro-Russian MPs and two former security officials – that it said had been working with Russia’s FSB security service as part of a plot “to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force.”

The MPs were both members of a political faction headed by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close Ukrainian ally of Mr. Putin who is under house arrest in Kyiv on treason charges.

Speaking in Berlin, where he was meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Mr. Blinken referenced the city’s Cold War history in warning that allowing Russia to attack Ukraine with impunity “would drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent – and this city – were split in two, separated by no man’s lands patrolled by soldiers, with the threat of all-out war hanging heavily over everyone’s lives. It would also send a message to others around the world that these principles are expendable.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed speculation of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine as “information cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.”

Russia has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine or its allies in the West are planning some kind of attack on the Donbas region of Ukraine, which has been controlled by a Russian-backed militia since 2014. The U.S., for its part, has said Russia could be preparing a “false flag” operation in the same area, perhaps to justify its planned invasion.

As the sniping between Russia and the U.S. continued, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took public umbrage at Mr. Biden’s suggestion that a “minor incursion” by Russia might be acceptable. “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter.

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