FRIDAY, April 19, 2024

Top U.S., Russian diplomats to meet amid Ukraine showdown

Top U.S., Russian diplomats to meet amid Ukraine showdown

RIGA, Latvia - Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet this week with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, the State Department said Wednesday, as a showdown intensifies between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

The top American diplomat will speak with Lavrov on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Stockholm on Thursday, a State Department official said, a day after Blinken and other NATO officials at a ministerial meeting in the Latvian capital discussed a potential alliance response to Moscow's military buildup along its border with Ukraine. The official, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the department.

NATO officials' warnings during two days of talks in Riga of serious consequences should Moscow launch an invasion of Ukraine, together with new demands from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday for guarantees against NATO's eastward expansion, offered fresh evidence of the growing hostility between Moscow and the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Blinken said he was concerned by what he called evidence of Russian plans for "significant aggressive moves" against Ukraine, including a buildup of combat forces and attempts to portray Ukraine as an aggressor. He compared the situation to that before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

"Those plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within as well as large-scale military operations," he told reporters after the conclusion of the NATO talks. "We don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so desire. So despite uncertainty about intentions and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course."

Blinken declined to give specifics about what sort of repercussions Moscow would face in the event of an invasion but said the Biden administration was prepared to impose "high-impact economic measures" that it has withheld in the past.

"We are prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine. NATO is prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank," he said.

Blinken said the possibility of a diplomatic solution remained. He also urged Russia to pull weapons and troops back from Ukraine's border and to cease what he called efforts to destabilize the country internally.

"That's how we can turn back from the crisis that would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for our bilateral relations with Moscow, for Russia's relations with Europe, for international peace and security," he said.

Blinken is also scheduled to meet with Ukraine's foreign minister in Stockholm.

Speaking at a credentialing ceremony for foreign ambassadors in Moscow, Putin said the Kremlin wants "concrete agreements" with NATO that the alliance will not expand to the east. That would include not adding any new members or weapons systems, he said.

"We express concern not only about the fact that the international community is acting in disarray and cannot unite to solve truly important problems, but also about the way our partners behave towards our country, towards Russia, trying in every way to restrain our development, exert sanctions pressure and escalate tensions at our borders," Putin said.

"This is more than serious for us," Putin added. "In this situation, Russia is taking adequate military-technical measures."

Also on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed the Ukrainian government has deployed 125,000 troops, about half its army, to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, the site of a protracted conflict between Kyiv's forces and Moscow-backed separatists.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials in turn have voiced concerns about what they say is a buildup of nearly 100,000 Russian troops along Russia's border with Ukraine. Moscow has called its activities purely defensive and said it is Kyiv that is attempting to provoke a confrontation.

Lavrov described the situation in Donbas as "disquieting."

"It turns out that they are deploying additional forces, while those that are supposed to be replaced aren't going anywhere, either," Lavrov told reporters Wednesday. "I believe that Western colleagues are perfectly aware of the situation because Ukraine does nothing without notifying them or receiving support."

This week, Putin warned the West against stationing missile-defense systems in Ukraine similar to those in Romania and Poland, claiming that they could be secret offensive weapons capable of reaching Moscow within 10 minutes.

"Then we'll have to create something similar to those who threaten us," Putin said, referencing his country's development of hypersonic weapons.

The Biden administration is attempting to establish a unified NATO position, which could include new military aid or sanctions, that would deter any new military action by Russia but also avoid supplying Putin with a rationale to invade in response.

A senior State Department official said the Riga talks had yielded a strong consensus in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity. "We are not looking for any military engagement, but we will stand up for Ukraine's sovereignty," the official said.

Andrew Weiss, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Putin appeared to be concerned that NATO support for Ukraine's military and cyber-capabilities would threaten Russian security.

"They'd like to nip that threat in the bud and put constraints on what Western countries can and can't do," he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow had no right to dictate events in neighboring countries, even smaller ones, and would not be able to veto a potential NATO decision to admit Ukraine as a member.

He said NATO should not be seen as a threat to Russia. "This idea that NATO support to a sovereign nation is a provocation is just wrong," he told reporters after the ministerial talks.

But Stoltenberg also noted that because Ukraine is not a NATO member, the alliance did not have a mutual defense responsibility.

"Of course there's a difference between a close and highly valued partner, Ukraine, where we provide support, and NATO allies where we actually have our collective defense force, where we provide security guarantees," he said.