GENEVA (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Friday that a weekslong standoff over Ukraine is at a “critical moment,” as he headed into talks with his Russian counterpart amid rising concerns that Europe could again be beset by war.
Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lowered expectations ahead of the meeting in Geneva, with each saying in his own way that the talks were only one step.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed near the Ukrainian border, many fear Moscow is preparing to invade — and the U.S. and its allies are scrambling to present a united front to hopefully prevent that or coordinate a response if they can’t.
“We don’t expect to resolve our differences here today. But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy or dialogue remains open,” Blinken told Lavrov. “This is a critical moment.”
Lavrov, meanwhile, said he did not “expect a breakthrough at these negotiations either. What we expect is concrete answers to our concrete proposals.” Moscow has demanded concessions from NATO over the western alliance’s relationship with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.
Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised “severe” consequences such as biting economic sanctions — though not military action — against Russia if an invasion goes ahead.
Blinken repeated that warning Friday. He said the U.S. and its allies were committed to diplomacy, but were also committed, “if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to pursue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe response.”
But he said he also wanted to use the opportunity to share directly with Lavrov some “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns that you have raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about Russia’s actions.”
After meeting with Ukraine’s president in Kyiv and top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin this week, Blinken faces Lavrov in a meeting that is shaping up as a possible last-ditch effort at dialogue and a negotiated agreement — but both sides sticking to so-far-irreconcilable red lines.
On Thursday in Berlin, Blinken warned of a “swift, severe” response from the U.S. and its allies if an invasion is launched, and the U.S. Treasury Department slapped new sanctions on four Ukrainian officials. Blinken said the four were at the center of a Kremlin effort begun in 2020 to damage Ukraine’s ability to “independently function.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday laid out its planned agenda for the meeting: texts of two proposals by Moscow for new treaties with both the United States and NATO on security guarantees.
The State Department, meanwhile, put out three statements – two on Russian “disinformation,” including specifically on Ukraine, and another entitled “Taking Action to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilization Campaign in Ukraine.”
Blinken took pains to stress U.S. unity with its allies in opposition to a possible Russian invasion — and tried to do just that Thursday, a day after U.S. President Joe Biden drew widespread criticism for saying retaliation for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details and that a “minor incursion” could prompt discord among Western allies.
On Thursday, Biden cautioned that any Russian troop movements across Ukraine’s 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: Any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
Russia has denied it is 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.
Russia wants binding security guarantees, including a permanent prohibition on Ukrainian membership in NATO, to which Kyiv aspires, and the removal of most of the U.S. and allied military presence in eastern Europe.
The U.S. and its European partners say they are willing to consider certain less-dramatic gestures but that the Russian demands are out of the question and that Putin knows they are nonstarters.