The U.S. government on Thursday issued sanctions on four Ukrainians who it said were engaged in Russia-backed “influence activities to destabilize Ukraine,” as Western powers continued signaling to Moscow that any further aggression against Ukraine would result in punitive economic and political consequences.  

“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” the Treasury Department said in a statement announcing the sanctions.  

Two of the four individuals are current members of the Ukrainian parliament, and are accused of working at the direction of Russian intelligence services to “create instability in advance of a Russian invasion,” including by undermining pro-Western politicians and “laying the groundwork for a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine.”  

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kremlin officials in 2020 “launched a comprehensive information operation plan designed in part to degrade the ability of the Ukrainian state to independently function; the individuals designated today played key roles in that campaign.” 

The slate of sanctions was “separate and distinct,” the Treasury Department said, from the broader range of sanctions the U.S. and European nations have vowed to slap on Russia if it attacked Ukraine.  

Blinken, who is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, downplayed the likelihood of a diplomatic breakthrough in public remarks in Berlin. He had traveled to the German capital following a trip to Kyiv, Ukraine to meet with German, French and British counterparts.   

“These are difficult issues we are facing, and resolving them won’t be done quickly. I don’t expect we’ll solve them in Geneva tomorrow,” he said of the talks with Lavrov. “But we can advance our mutual understanding – and that, combined with de-escalation of Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, that can turn us away from this crisis in the weeks ahead.”  

The secretary’s remarks came as Pentagon officials warned that a Russian invasion may not initially unfold with tanks rolling into Ukraine, but rather, in the form of hybrid measures like cyberattacks, information operations, sabotage or air strikes — any of which “could begin within days” and allow Putin an opportunity to gauge the international reaction, one U.S. official said.  

The U.S. has also approved third-party transfers for NATO partners and allies, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, to provide U.S. military equipment from their inventories for use by Ukraine, according to a State Department official. Recently the U.S. also authorized up to $200 million more in additional equipment support “to meet Ukraine’s emergency defense needs,” the official said.

In Washington, President Biden sought to walk back comments he made at a press conference Wednesday that suggested there could be divisions among Western nations about the consequences Russia could face if it launched a “minor incursion” into Ukrainian territory.  

President Zelenskyy of Ukraine alluded to the comment in a tweet in English reading, “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. Biden, in an apparent effort to clarify his comments, said that he had been “absolutely clear” with Mr. Putin and that the Russian president had “no misunderstanding” that if “any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that’s an invasion.”  

Such an incursion “will be met with severe and coordinated economic responses” that the president said he had discussed in detail with allies and laid out “very clearly” for Putin himself.  

“Let there be no doubt at all that, if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” Mr. Biden said, adding that the U.S. was prepared to address situations other than overt military action, including paramilitary tactics and cyberattacks.  

“We have to be ready to respond to these as well,” the president said.  

Asked if a small incursion by Russia would trigger sanctions, a senior Biden administration official also told reporters Wednesday, “If Russia uses conventional military to acquire land forcibly, that will merit severe economic response.”

 “We said previously ‘invasion is an invasion.’ That’s what we mean by that — whether it’s a small portion of territory or a large portion of territory,” the same official added.

David Martin, Eleanor Watson, Margaret Brennan and Camilla Schick contributed to this report.