US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned Moscow of the “severe costs and consequences” it would pay if it invaded Ukraine, urging his Russian counterpart to seek a diplomatic exit from the crisis.
Blinken on Thursday delivered the warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at what he called a “candid” meeting in Stockholm, Sweden. He announced that it was likely that Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin would speak soon.
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“I made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine,” Blinken told a news conference after the meeting.
“It’s now on Russia to de-escalate the current tensions by reversing the recent troop buildup, returning forces to normal peacetime positions and refraining from further intimidation and attempts to destabilise Ukraine.”
Al Jazeera’s Rosalind Jordan, reporting from Washington, DC, said Blinken’s remarks were a “reiteration of the Biden administration’s view that Russia is making plans to do something nefarious to Ukraine”.
“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.”
Meanwhile, Interfax news agency, quoting Russia’s foreign ministry, said Lavrov had told Blinken that Moscow would respond if Ukraine got drawn into any US “geopolitical games”.
The ministry hoped a Putin-Biden summit would take place in the coming days, Interfax said.
Blinken said: “I think it’s likely the presidents will speak directly in the near future.”
The Kremlin has been talking up the possibility of a second summit between the two leaders for weeks. Their last one took place in Geneva, Switzerland in June, less than two months after Russia scaled back a previous build-up of more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.
Lavrov, speaking to reporters before his talks with Blinken, said Moscow was ready for dialogue with Kyiv.
“We, as President Putin has stated, do not want any conflicts,” he said.
Ukraine says Russia has amassed more than 90,000 troops near their long shared border, while Moscow accuses Kyiv of pursuing its own military build-up.
It has dismissed as inflammatory suggestions it is preparing for an attack on Ukraine and has defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit.
Blinken declined to spell out what economic sanctions Russia might face if it invaded its neighbour, saying only that “Moscow knows very well the universe of what’s possible”.
Russia has withstood multiple rounds of international sanctions since it seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
But Western governments have a potential new lever now, as Moscow is awaiting German regulatory approval to start pumping gas through a newly-built $11bn pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
Blinken said Moscow and Kyiv should each fulfil their obligations under the Minsk peace process, which was designed to end a war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the east of the former Soviet republic.
Washington was willing to facilitate this, Blinken said, but “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences”.
The Kremlin said on Thursday – before the Lavrov-Blinken meeting – that the probability of a new conflict in eastern Ukraine remained high and that Moscow was concerned by “aggressive” rhetoric from Kyiv and an increase in what it called provocative actions along the line of contact between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Kyiv has denied any intention of trying to take back the rebel regions by force, accusing Russia of spouting “propaganda nonsense” in order to provide cover for its own aggressive intentions.
Russia said separately it had arrested three suspected Ukrainian intelligence agents, including one accused of planning to carry out an attack using two homemade bombs, allegations that Kyiv dismissed as trumped up.
Last week Ukraine’s president said Kyiv had thwarted a Russian-backed coup plot, which the Kremlin denied.
East-West relations have sunk to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. The point was accidentally underlined by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when he said during a visit to South Korea: “The best case … is that we won’t see an incursion by the Soviet Union into the Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s tilt towards the West since removing a pro-Russian president in 2014 has enraged Moscow, which says it will not accept NATO membership for Ukraine or the stationing of NATO missiles there that could threaten it.
Putin said this week that Russia was ready with a newly-tested hypersonic weapon of its own if the West deployed missiles in Ukraine that could hit Moscow within a few minutes.
In a speech to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe earlier on Thursday, Lavrov said military tensions were rising on the continent and he hoped that Russia’s proposals on a new European security pact would be carefully considered.
“The architecture of strategic stability is rapidly being destroyed, NATO refuses to constructively examine our proposals to de-escalate tensions and avoid dangerous incidents,” Lavrov said.
“On the contrary, the alliance’s military infrastructure is drawing closer to Russia’s borders. The nightmare scenario of military confrontation is returning.”