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US, Russia agree to continue Ukraine talks after Blinken-Lavrov meeting
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Jan. 21 in Geneva for high-stakes talks amid mounting fears that the Kremlin could be about to invade Ukraine.
As they had predicted earlier, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats made no major breakthrough in their 90-minute conversation. However, they agreed to keep talking to try to find a way to reduce tensions caused by Russia's deployment of over 127,000 troops along Ukraine's borders and inside occupied territories. Russia has been reportedly spotted sending Iskander ballistic missiles towards Ukraine from bases in the country's east.
Russia has demanded for Ukraine to get a lifetime ban from NATO, a removal of allied troops and military hardware from states that joined the bloc after 1997, which includes Warsaw Pact countries, and a reduction in NATO troop deployments in Europe. The allies have rejected these proposals as "non-starters."
However, Lavrov said Moscow expects to receive a written reply from Washington to its demands next week. The Kremlin has warned that it may take unspecified military action if the West fails to meet its proposals.
Before the talks began, Blinken said the standoff is at a “critical point.”
Another attempt at diplomacy
The bilateral meeting, which ended 30 minutes earlier than planned, yielded little to nothing for Ukraine. The top American and Russian diplomats held separate press conferences, both describing the conversation as “frank.”
Lavrov told reporters that the meeting concluded with a deal that the United States will send a written response to Moscow’s security demands next week. He said he would like to publicize the response but this needs to be double-checked with Blinken.
Lavrov said Russia never threatened Ukraine or its people, despite the massive military build-up near its borders and its invasion of Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014.
The Kremlin has been denying that it would launch an attack on Ukraine, while making vague threats and accusing its neighbor of threatening Russian security by procuring foreign weapons and trying to join NATO.
U.S. President Joe Biden believes an attack is likely and has promised to impose far-reaching sanctions should Russia further invade Ukraine.
Following Lavrov’s press conference, Blinken told the reporters that he saw grounds to hope that mutual security concerns could be addressed.
Despite not reaching a breakthrough during the talks, the State Secretary said Washington and Moscow are now on a “clearer path” and understand each other’s concerns better, adding that this meeting was not a negotiation like last week’s talks.
Blinken repeated that Moscow’s demand for a U.S. and NATO commitment to never allow Ukraine become a member of the 30-nation alliance is simply a non-starter. He also warned that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would be met with a "united, swift and severe" response from the West.
Earlier in the week, U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to undermine the allies' unity by bluntly saying that a “minor incursion” might not trigger the same response from NATO as a full-scale invasion. The White House soon clarified that any Russian troops entering Ukraine would be treated as an invasion, as opposed to paramilitary or cyber attacks.
European allies made subsequent statements saying they stand united on the issue of sanctions against Russia if it deepens its invasion into Ukraine.
Blinken said if Russia wants to convince the world that it’s not planning to invade Ukraine, it would be good to start by moving the troops away from the Ukrainian borders.
Neither side has ruled out the idea of organizing a meeting between the two country’s presidents, which Blinken says the U.S. is prepared to do.
The Secretary said Russia now faces a choice.
"It can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security, or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation," he said.
A week of diplomacy
The Friday meeting capped days of intense diplomacy by Blinken, who visited President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, then met in Berlin with the U.K., Germany and France, before heading to Geneva.
The Blinken-Lavrov meeting took place 11 days after the first series of discussions in the Swiss city resulted in what Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov called a dead end.
Several European nations have moved to strengthen NATO’s military deployment in eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, the state department has given the go-ahead for three Baltic NATO allies to send anti-armor missiles and other U.S.-made weapons to Ukraine on Jan. 20. The United Kingdom has already begun supplying Ukraine with new light anti-tank weapons, as well as personnel to train Ukrainian forces. Other countries followed, with many making promises to send military equipment to Ukraine to help it withstand an attack.
A day before the latest round of talks between the U.S. and Russia, Blinken said during a speech in Berlin that a Russian attack would send a wrong message to autocrats everywhere that borders can be redrawn by force.
“It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action,” he said. “It’s bigger than Russia and NATO.”