Top envoys to meet on easing Ukraine tensions

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to head off a potential assault on Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Russia's foreign minister Friday as the two sides explore whether there is still a diplomatic path to avoiding a conflict in Eastern Europe.

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The talks will seek to break a deadlock that was thrown into sharp relief last week when a series of three negotiating sessions between Russia and the West ended in an impasse. The thorniest issue was Russia's demand that NATO pledge not to expand eastward, a condition that the United States and Western Europe have rejected.

The White House said Tuesday that Blinken would "urge Russia to take immediate steps to deescalate."

"We're now at a stage where Russia could at any point want an attack in Ukraine," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, "and what Secretary Blinken is going to do is highlight very clearly there is a diplomatic path forward."

Blinken departed Tuesday for Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where he will meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in a show of U.S. support. Blinken will reinforce the United States' commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, the State Department said.

Blinken will follow that visit with a stop in Berlin on Thursday before meeting with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva the next day, a senior State Department official said.

The official warned that Russia -- which has assembled as many as 100,000 troops along Ukraine's eastern border -- could launch an attack at any time.

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A senior Russian diplomat has warned that the talks were reaching a dead end. The Kremlin signaled it could refuse to engage in further negotiations and instead take unspecified "military-technical" measures to ensure its security, insisting Russia would not allow the West to bog it down in long-running talks.

That Lavrov will meet with Blinken on Friday indicates that Russia is prepared for at least one more round of diplomacy.

The two spoke by phone Tuesday before Blinken's departure for Kyiv. In the call, Lavrov rejected the idea that Russia was planning to attack Ukraine and insisted that it was up to Kyiv to calm tensions, according to a description of the call published by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

"The minister urged the secretary of state not to replicate speculation about allegedly impending 'Russian aggression,'" the Foreign Ministry said.

Blinken underscored to Lavrov that any discussion of European security "must include NATO Allies and European partners, including Ukraine," the State Department said.


The State Department has not described Blinken's agenda for the meeting with his long-serving Russian counterpart.

On Monday, Lavrov rejected the U.S. allegations that his country was preparing a pretext to invade. Speaking to reporters, he dismissed the claim as "total disinformation."

Russian officials have said they are expecting a written U.S. response to demands that Russia made weeks ago about NATO's presence in Eastern Europe. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov told Blinken in their phone call that Moscow was expecting "article-by-article" comments.

The State Department official would not say whether Blinken would provide such a response and said it remained unclear whether Moscow was serious about finding a diplomatic solution.

Russia has called for "security guarantees" it needs from the West -- a series of measures that would effectively restore Russia's sphere of influence close to Soviet-era lines, before NATO expanded into Eastern Europe.

And while Russia's troop buildup is most obviously threatening Ukraine, analysts and Western officials believe that if it abandons diplomacy, the Kremlin could also take other steps -- like repositioning its nuclear missile arsenal -- to more directly threaten the U.S. and Western Europe.

"This is a serious matter," Lavrov said at a news conference alongside his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, in Moscow on Tuesday. "Drawing things out before reaching concrete agreements on this score is not working."

In an effort to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin, the U.S. and its allies have vowed to impose punishing sanctions if Ukraine is attacked. In Germany on Tuesday, the country's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, warned Russia of "high costs."

In particular, Russia is eager for Germany to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would transport Russian gas to Western Europe, enhancing Moscow's leverage over European energy. Asked about the pipeline, Scholz said "everything will have to be discussed if it comes to a military intervention in Ukraine."

Blinken will meet in Berlin with British and French diplomats as well as German officials as the U.S. and Europe work to coordinate sanctions.

"There's a diplomatic path forward," Psaki said. "It is up to the Russians to determine which path they're going to take, and the consequences will be severe if they don't take the diplomatic path."


Meanwhile, Russia is a sending an unspecified number of troops from the country's far east to Belarus for major war games, officials said Tuesday, a deployment that will further beef up the Russian military presence near Ukraine.

As the White House noted the escalating tensions, the U.K. delivered a batch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said Tuesday it has received a shipment of anti-tank weapons from the U.K., noting that they will help "strengthen our defense capability."

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the drills with Belarus would involve practicing a joint response to external threats.

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine from several directions, including from its ally Belarus.

Russia already has started moving troops for the war games. Fomin said it would take through Feb. 9 to fully deploy weapons and personnel for the Allied Resolve 2022 drills, which are expected to take place Feb. 10-20.

Fomin didn't say how many troops will be involved, but said Russia will deploy a dozen Su-35 fighter jets and several air defense units to Belarus. The deployment would bolster the Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons already amassed near Ukraine.

Fomin said the drills, which involve troops from Russia's Eastern Military District, reflect the need to practice concentrating the country's entire military potential in the west.

"A situation may arise when forces and means of the regional group of forces will be insufficient to ensure reliable security of the union state, and we must be ready to strengthen it," Fomin said at a meeting with foreign military attaches. "We have reached an understanding with Belarus that it's necessary to engage the entire military potential for joint defense."

Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, said the maneuvers will be conducted on Belarus' western border and in the south, where it borders Ukraine. Lukashenko, who has edged increasingly closer to Russia amid Western sanctions over his government's crackdown on domestic protests, has recently offered to host Russian nuclear weapons.

A senior Biden administration official said the Russian troop deployment to Belarus raises concerns that Moscow may be planning to stage troops there to stretch Ukraine's defenses with an attack from the north. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, noted that the movement may also indicate Belarus' willingness "to allow both Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed on its territory."

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it was speeding up efforts to form reserve battalions that would allow for the rapid deployment of 130,000 recruits to expand the country's 246,000-strong military.

The United States and its allies have urged Russia to deescalate the situation by calling back the troops amassed near Ukraine.

"In recent weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and guns have gathered near Ukraine without an understandable reason, and it's hard not to understand that as a threat," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters Tuesday after talks in Moscow with her Russian counterpart, Lavrov.

Lavrov responded by restating Moscow's argument that it's free to deploy its forces wherever it considers it necessary on its territory.

"We can't accept demands about our armed forces on our own territory," Lavrov said. "We aren't threatening anyone, but we are hearing threats to us."


Baerbock emphasized that the West was ready "for a serious dialogue on mutual agreements and steps to bring everyone in Europe more security."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with the German chancellor in Berlin on Tuesday. He said "the main task now is to make progress on the political way forward" to prevent a military attack against Ukraine.

"NATO allies are ready to meet with Russia again, and today I have invited Russia and all the NATO allies to attend a series of meetings in the NATO-Russia Council in the near future to address our concerns but also listen to Russia's concerns," Stoltenberg said.

He said NATO "in the near future" will deliver its written proposals responding to Russian demands and "hopefully we can begin meeting after that."

"We need to see what Russia says, and that will be a kind of pivotal moment," Stoltenberg said.

Speaking on a visit to Ukraine on Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly denounced the Russian troop buildup as unacceptable. She noted Canada's efforts to help train Ukraine's military, adding that it's considering Ukraine's call for military equipment and will make a decision "in a timely manner."

Ahead of Blinken's visit to Kyiv, a delegation of U.S. senators was visiting Ukraine to emphasize congressional support for the country.

"Our bipartisan congressional delegation sends a clear message to the global community: the United States stands in unwavering support of our Ukrainian partners to defend their sovereignty and in the face of persistent Russian aggression," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a statement.

Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean Peninsula after the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between the Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country's industrial heartland, called Donbas.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael Crowley and Anton Troianovski of The New York Times; and by Matthew Lee, Vladimir Isachenkov, Aamer Madhani, Ellen Knickmeyer, Geir Moulson, Lorne Cook and Yuras Karmanau of The Associated Press.