United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met his Russian counterpart as the divide between Moscow and Washington widens over Ukraine.
Blinken’s talks with Sergey Lavrov took place on Thursday on the sidelines of a summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm, where foreign ministers from the group’s 57 members discussed key regional security issues.
The high-level Russia-US meeting came after weeks of tension, with Kyiv and its Western allies voicing concern over a significant build-up of Russian troops near the frontier with Ukraine.
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Moscow denies planning an invasion and accuses Ukraine of building up its own forces in the east of the country, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since early 2014 following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Kyiv.
Prior to their talks, Lavrov warned on Thursday of the “nightmare scenario of military confrontation … returning” amid the tensions, while Blinken cautioned Moscow would face “serious consequences” if it pursues confrontation with its neighbour.
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Ukraine not posing threat to Russia, Blinken says
Blinken says Ukraine is in no way posing a threat to Russia or seeking a confrontation that justifies a Russian military intervention and that it is now on Moscow to de-escalate current tensions.
“The only threat is that of renewed Russian aggression towards Ukraine,” he told reporters following his meeting with Lavrov.
Blinken added that Washington was prepared to work with Moscow and Kyiv to support a diplomatic resolution and avert a crisis that would suit “no one’s interests”. He said US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin may have an opportunity to speak directly in the near future.
Washington fears Russian ‘invasion of Ukrainian territory’
Al Jazeera’s Rosalind Jordan, reporting from Washington, DC, said Blinken’s remarks following his meeting with Lavrov were a “reiteration of the Biden administration’s view that Russia is making plans to do something nefarious to Ukraine”.
“The fear here in Washington is that Russia is planning another invasion of Ukrainian territory to try to capture what it considers historically Russian territory, particularly in the eastern part of Ukraine,” she said.
“The message that we heard from Blinken is that the US is simply not going to stand for it, but he would not answer reporters questions about whether this would include some sort of military response.”
Russia promises response to any ‘geopolitical games’ in Ukraine
Russia’s foreign ministry says Lavrov told Blinken during the pair’s talks that Moscow will respond if Ukraine gets drawn into any US “geopolitical games”.
He also told his US counterpart that Russia and the US needed to agree on long-term security guarantees, the foreign ministry was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Blinken reiterated call for Russian troop pullback
Blinken addressed “Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, including its military movements near Ukraine’s borders” during his meeting with Lavrov, a spokesperson for the US State Department said in a statement.
“The Secretary reiterated the United States’ call for Russia to pull back its forces and return to a peacetime posture and to adhere to the Minsk agreements and a ceasefire in the Donbas,” spokesman Ned Price said, citing the 2014 and 2015 accords aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“He [Blinken] underscored that the best path forward is diplomacy in conjunction with the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, a process the United States is willing and ready to support. Should Moscow choose the path of military escalation, the Secretary made clear that the United States and our allies are prepared to impose significant costs,” Price added.
Russia says it hopes for Putin, Biden ‘contact’ soon
Moscow says it hopes for “contact” between Putin and Biden in the coming days following Lavrov and Blinken’s meeting.
“The date has not yet been agreed. There are difficulties in aligning the calendars of the two leaders, but contact is very necessary, our problems are multiplying,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
“There is no movement on bilateral affairs, which are more and more reaching an acute crisis phase. There is no mutual understanding about how to de-escalate the situation in Europe,” he added.
As well as the Ukraine conflict, Russia and the US are at odds over cyberattacks and the staffing of their embassies, after several waves of diplomatic expulsions.
‘Serious, sober’ meeting
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow, says the meeting between Lavrov and Blinken lasted about “an hour”, according to a statement issued by the US State Department.
“The statement said the meeting was serious, sober and businesslike,” he said.
“Blinken, according to the State Department, made clear that the US doesn’t have a desire for conflict with Russia … and Russia will have repeated its point about its own red lines, that it doesn’t want NATO expanding eastwards, taking in Ukraine and Georgia.”
Ukraine aspires to join NATO, of which it is currently an ally but not a member.
EU approves security aid to Ukraine, Kyiv says
The European Council, the European Union’s executive arm, has decided to give 31 million euros ($35m) in security aid to Ukraine’s armed forces, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba says.
The money will be spent on medicine, engineering, demining, logistics and cybersecurity, Kuleba said in a tweet, adding: “We highly appreciate this step which reaffirms the strategic Ukraine-EU relations.”
Kyiv has pressed its EU and NATO allies to prepare economic sanctions on Russia to deter Moscow from launching a new military offensive on Ukraine.
The package will include material and technical assistance for the development and capacity building of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the spheres of medicine, engineering capabilities, demining activities, mobility and logistics, cybersecurity 2/2 #StrongerTogether
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) December 2, 2021
UK restates support for Ukraine’s sovereignty
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said she restated the United Kingdom’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty during a meeting with Lavrov at the OSCE summit.
“Met Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Stockholm @OSCE. I re-stated the UK’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Truss said on Twitter. “We also discussed Iran and Afghanistan and bilateral issues.”
🇬🇧🇷🇺 Met Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Stockholm @OSCE. I re-stated the UK's support for Ukraine's sovereignty. We also discussed Iran and Afghanistan and bilateral issues. pic.twitter.com/OoVCF1mQEX
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) December 2, 2021
Blinken urges Russia to opt for diplomacy
Blinken warned Lavrov before the pair’s talks of the “serious consequences” Russia would suffer if it invaded Ukraine, and urged Moscow to seek a diplomatic exit from the crisis.
“The best way to avert the crisis is through diplomacy, and that’s what I look forward to discussing with Sergey,” he told reporters before going into the discussions.
Blinken also said Russia and Ukraine should fully implement their obligations under the 2014 Minsk peace process.
Russia to unveil security pact proposals to restrain NATO
Lavrov says Moscow will soon put forward proposals for a new European security pact it hopes will stop NATO from expanding further eastwards.
In a speech to the OSCE, Lavrov said Europe was returning to the nightmare of military confrontation and that he hoped Russia’s suggestions would be carefully considered.
“NATO refuses to constructively examine our proposals to de-escalate tensions and avoid dangerous incidents,” he said. “On the contrary, the alliance’s military infrastructure is drawing closer to Russia’s borders. The nightmare scenario of military confrontation is returning.”
‘Risk of something going wrong mounts day-by-day’
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow, says the talks between Blinken and Lavrov are an “opportunity” for both sides to reiterate their respective positions face-to-face.
“For Russia, it’s unacceptable… that NATO could spread eastwards, accepting not just Ukraine but also Georgia as potential new members,” Smith said.
“But the US has said it is not up to Russia what sovereign nations like Ukraine and Georgia decide to do, and while those discussions go on, the troop build-up and confrontation on the border with Ukraine and Russia continues… and the risk of something going wrong mounts day-by-day as these two sides face off.”
Kremlin says probability of new conflict in Ukraine still high
The Kremlin says the probability of a new conflict in eastern Ukraine remains high amid “aggressive” rhetoric from Kyiv and an increase in what it claims are provocative actions by its neighbour.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that Moscow was worried about the possibility of a Ukrainian military move in eastern Ukraine, something Kyiv has denied planning.
Peskov also said Russia viewed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pledges to return annexed Crimea as a direct threat. “Such a formulation means that Kyiv may use any option, including force, to try and encroach on a Russian region,” he said.
Ukraine, EU discuss sanctions in case of Russian ‘aggression’
Ukraine’s Kuleba says he has met with the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell to speed up work on specific economic restrictions that could hit the Russian economy if Moscow launches a new offensive.
“We discussed the need to deter Russia and speed up work on specific economic restrictions which will be able to hit the Russian economy should Moscow decide to launch a new stage of aggression against Ukraine,” the foreign minister tweeted.