Washington and Moscow’s top diplomats have agreed to keep working to ease tensions over Ukraine, with the United States promising a written response to Russian security demands and not ruling out a presidential meeting.
As fears grow that Russia could invade its pro-Western neighbour, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken renewed warnings of severe Western reprisals as he met for 90 minutes with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
“Based on the conversations we’ve had – the extensive conversations – over the past week and today here in Geneva I think there are grounds for and a means to address some of the mutual concerns that we have about security,” Blinken said.
He described the high-stakes talks as “frank” and not “polemical”, with Lavrov also voicing hope for a lowering of the temperature between the former Cold War foes.
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, denying it plans to invade but demanding security guarantees, including a permanent ban on the country joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
Blinken said that Washington will share written ideas with Russia next week in which it will also make clear its own positions.
“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clear path in terms of understanding each other’s concerns and each other’s positions,” Blinken told reporters. “We anticipate that we will be able to share with Russia our concerns and ideas in more detail in writing next week and we agreed to further discussions after that.”
Speaking separately to reporters, Lavrov also said he was promised the written responses next week.
He said that the ball was in Washington’s court.
“Antony Blinken agreed that we need to have a reasonable dialogue, and I hope emotions will decrease,” Lavrov said. “I cannot say whether or not we are on the right track. We will know when we get an answer.”
He added that another meeting could be held between the two, but that it was “premature” to start talking about another summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, who met in Geneva last June.
Blinken, however, did not rule out fresh talks between the presidents after Biden twice warned Putin by telephone of consequences for any Ukraine invasion.
“If we conclude (and) the Russians conclude that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between them, we’re certainly prepared to do that,” Blinken said.
Biden bluntly assessed on Wednesday that Putin is likely to “move in” on Ukraine and warned of a “disaster for Russia”.
Russia, which already fuels a deadly insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014, has demanded guarantees that Nato never admit the former Soviet republic or expand otherwise in Moscow’s old sphere.
The US has declared the idea a “non-starter” and accused Russia of undermining Europe’s post-Cold War order by bullying another country into submission.
Yesterday Russia reiterated demands for the “withdrawal of foreign forces, hardware and arms” from countries that were not Nato members before 1997, this time singling out Bulgaria and Romania, two former Warsaw Pact countries that joined Nato in 2004.
Romania’s foreign ministry quickly hit back, saying the demand “is unacceptable and cannot be part of a negotiation”.
Blinken headed to Geneva after a solidarity trip to Kyiv and talks with Britain, France and Germany in Berlin.
Even while rejecting the core Russian demands, the Biden administration has said it is willing to speak to Moscow about its security concerns.
One proposal by the United States is to revive restrictions on missiles in Europe that had been set by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War deal trashed by former president Donald Trump’s administration as it accused Moscow of violations.
The Biden administration has also offered more transparency on military exercises.
Russia has not rejected the proposals but says that its core concern is Ukraine, and on Thursday announced massive naval drills in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Mediterranean as a show of force.
The United States has warned that the clock is ticking, putting forward intelligence alleging that an invasion could come shortly and be preceded by a “false-flag” operation as Russia tries to trigger a pretext against Ukraine.
Blinken said he asked Lavrov to prove Russia has no intention to invade.
“If Russia wants to begin to convince the world that it has no aggressive intent toward Ukraine, a very good place to start would be by de-escalating, by bringing back – removing – those forces on Ukraine’s border,” Blinken said.
Lawmakers in Russia’s parliament have presented a bill that would ask Putin to recognise the independence of two pro-Moscow separatist territories in Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Lower house speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said yesterday that such a move – sure to enrage Ukraine and prompt Western condemnation – would be “a solution to provide for the security of our citizens and countrymen” in the two regions.
Ukraine’s military intelligence service accused Russia yesterday of sending fresh arms and equipment to the rebels since the start of this month, including tanks, artillery and ammunition.
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