The US and Russia are trying to lower the temperature in the Ukraine crisis
Armed with seemingly recalcitrant and diametrically opposed demands, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva for about 90 minutes in what the American described as a “critical moment.”
But there was no visible movement on either side, and Blinken said the US and its allies remain adamantly opposed to key Russian demands.
Nonetheless, Blinken told Lavrov that the US would provide Russia with written responses to its proposals next week, and suggested the two men would likely meet again shortly thereafter.
With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine, many fear Moscow is preparing an invasion, though Russia denies it. The US and its allies are scrambling to form a united front to prevent this, or to coordinate a tough response when they cannot.
“We weren’t expecting any big breakthroughs today, but I think we’re on a clearer path now in understanding each other’s positions,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.
Blinken said Lavrov reiterated Russia’s insistence that it had no plans to invade Ukraine, but stressed that the US and its allies were not convinced.
“We look at what is visible to all and it is deeds and deeds and not words that make the difference,” he said, adding that Russia should withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border if it proves its point wool.
Lavrov, meanwhile, called the talks “constructive and useful” and said the US agreed to provide written responses to Russian demands on Ukraine and NATO next week. This could at least delay imminent aggression by a few days.
But Lavrov declined to characterize the US pledge.
“I can’t tell if we’re on the right track or not,” he told reporters. “We will understand that when we get the written response from the US to all of our proposals.”
Moscow has demanded that the NATO alliance never join Ukraine – a former Soviet republic. She also wants the Allies to withdraw troops and military equipment from parts of Eastern Europe.
The US and its NATO allies have flatly denied these claims, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin knows they are no novices. You have said that you are open to less dramatic movements.
Blinken said the US is open to a meeting between Putin and US President Joe Biden if it is “useful and productive.” The two leaders have met in person once in Geneva and have held several virtual talks on Ukraine that have proved largely fruitless.
Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised “severe” consequences such as harsh economic sanctions – albeit no military action – against Russia if an invasion occurs.
Blinken repeated that warning on Friday. He said the US and its allies are committed to diplomacy, but also committed “if that proves impossible and Russia decides to continue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and strong response.”
But he said he also wanted to take the opportunity to share directly with Lavrov some “specific ideas to address some of the concerns you’ve raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about Russia’s actions.”
Ukraine is already riddled with conflict. Russia’s Putin seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that was part of a simmering but largely deadlocked conflict with Ukrainian forces that claimed more than 14,000 lives. Putin faced limited international consequences for those moves, but the West says a new invasion would be different.
Before his meeting with Lavrov, Blinken met the Ukrainian president and top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin this week in Kiev.
In addition to its repeated verbal warnings to Russia, the United States tightened sanctions on Thursday. The US Treasury Department has imposed new measures on four Ukrainian officials. Blinken said the four were at the center of a Kremlin effort that began in 2020 to damage Ukraine’s ability to “function independently.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday reiterated its demands that NATO not expand into Ukraine, that allied weapons not be stationed near Russia’s borders, and that allied troops withdraw from Central and Eastern Europe.
The State Department, meanwhile, issued three statements — two on Russian “disinformation,” including specifically on Ukraine, and another titled “Take action to expose and disrupt Russia’s destabilization campaign in Ukraine.” The documents accused Russia and Putin of attempting to rebuild the former Soviet Union through intimidation and violence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry ridiculed these statements, saying they must have been prepared by an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth,” and Lavrov scathingly dismissed them.
“I hope not everyone at the State Department worked on these materials, and there were some who worked on the essence of our proposals and their substance,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also dismissed Western claims that Moscow was trying to rebuild the Soviet empire and delineate its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, accusing the West of thinking in terms of spheres of influence.
Blinken has sought to emphasize US unity with its allies against a possible Russian invasion, taking an apparent blow earlier this week when Biden drew widespread criticism for saying he was taking retaliatory action for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details and that a “minor incursion” could create discord among western allies.
On Thursday, Biden tried to clarify his comments by warning that any movement of Russian troops across Ukraine’s border would constitute an invasion and that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for such an action.
“I was absolutely clear with President Putin,” Biden said. “He has no misunderstanding: all assembled Russian units are moving across the Ukrainian border, this is an invasion.”
Russia on Thursday accused the West of planning “provocations” in Ukraine, citing the delivery of arms to the country by British military transport planes in recent days.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this.