LIVERPOOL – Top diplomats from the Group of Seven industrialized nations met Saturday in Liverpool for talks dominated by Russia's buildup of troops near Ukraine's border and what host country Britain called Moscow's “malign behavior” around the world.
The U.K. called for “a show of unity against global aggressors” as it welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other G-7 foreign ministers amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis and tensions with China and Iran.
“We need to defend ourselves against the growing threats from hostile actors," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said as she opened the meeting of foreign ministers from the U.K., the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. “And we need to come together strongly to stand up to aggressors who are seeking to limit the bounds of freedom and democracy.”
The U.S. and its NATO allies are concerned that the movement of Russian troops and weapons to the border region with Ukraine may be a prelude to an invasion and have said they would inflict heavy sanctions on Russia’s economy if that happens.
Moscow denies having any plans to attack Ukraine and accuses Kyiv of its own allegedly aggressive designs.
A senior U.S. official who participated in Saturday’s discussions said the G-7 ministers were united in their “extreme concern” about developments on the Russia-Ukraine border. The official said the ministers greed that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would be met with a response that would bring “massive consequences and severe costs” from the G-7.
The official would not elaborate on what those consequences might be but said they would be implemented “very, very fast” if Russia did not heed warnings to back down.
The U.S. and its allies have played down talk of a military response to defend Ukraine, with efforts focusing on tough sanctions that would hit the Russian economy, rather than just individuals.
In the U.S., reporters asked President Joe Biden on Saturday about the possibility of sending combat troops to Ukraine, and he said that idea was never considered. ``Are you ready to send American troops into war and go into Ukraine to fight Russians on the battlefield," he said.
Biden said he has made it clear to Putin that in the event of an invasion, “the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating. Devastating.”
European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is also attending the two-day conference, said the ministers were determined "to make Russia understand that anything that could represent an attack to Ukraine would have a high price.”
Getting a unified response from the G-7, a group of countries with disparate interests, has often proved tough. Germany plans on getting gas from Russia soon through the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which bypasses Ukraine. Britain, which is not dependent on Russian gas, generally takes a tougher line on the pipeline — but faces tough questions about London's financial district and property market, both hubs for Russian money.
Truss said she wanted to work with other countries “to make sure that free democratic nations are able to have an alternative to Russian gas supplies.” She met on the sidelines of the gathering with Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a politician from the environmentalist Greens who previously opposed Nord Stream 2.
Alongside efforts to agree on tough sanctions should Russia invade, efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Russia-Ukraine crisis appear to be accelerating. The State Department announced Saturday that the top American diplomat for Europe, Karen Donfried, will visit both Kyiv and Moscow next week “to reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” and to seek a resolution. Donfried will go later to Brussels to talk with NATO and European Union allies.
China's muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific region and the ailing Iran nuclear deal were also on the agenda for the weekend meeting at the dockside Museum of Liverpool.
The gathering is taking place as negotiators meet in Vienna to try to revive an international deal to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Blinken met German, French and British diplomats in Liverpool to discuss next steps over Iran, and the Biden administration's special envoy on Iran, Robert Malley, also stopped in the city on his way to Vienna.
Truss warned this week that the Vienna talks are “the last chance for Iran to sign up” again to the deal, which was meant to rein in Tehran's nuclear program in return for loosened economic sanctions.
Truss also invited ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the Liverpool meeting, though many were joining remotely because of the pandemic. Delegates and journalists face daily virus tests and mask mandates at the conference, as Britain records more cases of the omicron virus variant, which scientists say will become the dominant strain in the U.K. in the next week or so.
Britain is keen to work more closely with Asian nations as part of an “Indo-Pacific tilt” following the U.K.’s departure from the 27-nation European Union last year — both to boost U.K. trade and as a counterweight to China’s dominance.
Truss told her G-7 counterparts that democracies needed to fight “economic coercion” and “win the battle of technology” — both pointed references to Beijing's growing influence around the globe. The G-7 has launched a “Build Back Better World” initiative to offer developing nations funding for big infrastructure projects as an alternative to money from China that, the West argues, often comes with strings attached.
A unified stance towards China continues to prove elusive, however, with the U.S. and Britain generally more hawkish than other G-7 members.
The U.K. chose a setting steeped in British history and culture for final meeting of its year as G-7 president. Liverpool’s docklands, once a symbol of Britain’s global reach and economic might, came to represent the country's post-industrial decline, but now the area along the River Mersey is a prime example of 21st century urban renewal.
A museum dedicated to the city’s most famous sons, the Beatles Story Museum, was the setting for the G-7 ministers' dinner on Saturday night. Delegates were serenaded by a Fab Four cover band before eating a locally sourced meal in a recreation of Liverpool's famous Cavern Club, where the band played many of its early gigs.