The United States and Russia tried on Friday to avert another devastating conflict in Europe, but top diplomats from both powers warned no breakthrough was imminent amid growing fears that Moscow is planning to invade the Ukraine.
Armed with seemingly intractable and diametrically opposed demands, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva at what the American called a “critical moment”. The talks are presented as a possible last-ditch effort at dialogue.
With around 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine, many fear Moscow is planning an invasion, although Russia denies this. The United States and its allies are working to present a united front to prevent this or to coordinate a strong response if they cannot.
After the talks, Lavrov called them “constructive and helpful” and said the United States had agreed to provide written responses to Russian requests to Ukraine and NATO next week. This could at least delay any impending attack for a few days.
But he declined to characterize this stage.
“I can’t say whether we’re on the right track or not,” he told reporters. “We’ll see when we get the American answers.”
Before the meeting, the two diplomats stayed away from each other.
“We don’t expect to resolve our differences here today. But I hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy or dialogue remains open,” Blinken told Lavrov before their private meeting. “This is a critical moment.”
Lavrov, meanwhile, said he “didn’t expect a breakthrough in these negotiations either. What we expect are concrete responses to our concrete proposals.
Moscow demanded that the NATO alliance promise that Ukraine – a former Soviet republic – will never be allowed to join. He also wants the allies to withdraw troops and military equipment from parts of Eastern Europe. The United States and its NATO allies have flatly rejected those demands and say Russian President Vladimir Putin knows they are not leaving. They said they were open to less dramatic moves.
Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised “tough” consequences such as biting economic sanctions – but not military action – against Russia if an invasion takes place.
Blinken repeated that warning on Friday. He said the United States and its allies were committed to diplomacy, but also committed “if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to continue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe”.
But he said he also wanted to take the opportunity to share directly with Lavrov some “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns you’ve raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about the actions of Russia”.
Ukraine is already in the throes of conflict. Russia’s Putin seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, in a latent but largely stalemated conflict with Ukrainian forces that has left more than 14,000 dead. It faced limited international consequences for those moves, but the West says a new invasion would be different.
Ahead of his meeting with Lavrov, Blinken met with the Ukrainian president in Kiev and senior British, French and German diplomats in Berlin this week.
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 begun in 2020 to undermine Ukraine’s ability to “function independently.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday reiterated its demands that NATO not expand into Ukraine, that no alliance weapons be deployed near Russian borders and that alliance forces withdraw from Central and Eastern Europe.
The State Department, meanwhile, issued three statements — two on Russian “disinformation,” including on Ukraine, and another titled “Acting to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilization Campaign in Ukraine.” The documents accused Russia and Putin of trying to reconstitute the former Soviet Union through intimidation and force.
The Russian Foreign Ministry mocked the statements, saying they must have been prepared by an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth,” and Lavrov caustically dismissed them in his remarks to Blinken, saying he hoped that the State Department had also spent time drafting responses to Russia’s requests.
“I hope everyone at the State Department was not working on these documents and some were working on the essence of our proposals and their substance,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday dismissed Western claims that Moscow was trying to rebuild the Soviet empire and carve out a zone of influence in Eastern Europe, saying it is the West that thinks in categories of areas of influence.
Blinken was careful to stress American unity with its allies against a possible Russian invasion, which apparently took a hit earlier this week when US President Joe Biden drew widespread criticism for saying retaliation for the Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details and that a “minor incursion” could cause discord among Western allies.
On Thursday, Biden sought to clarify his comments by warning that any movement of Russian troops across the Ukrainian border would constitute an invasion and that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for such an action.
“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Biden said. “He has no misunderstanding: all assembled Russian units are crossing the Ukrainian border, it’s an invasion.”
Russia denied it was planning an invasion and instead accused the West on Thursday of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing the delivery of weapons to the country by British military transport planes in recent days.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.