The US has told Russia it will face “serious consequences” if it decides to pursue confrontation with Ukraine, amid growing fears among western nations that Russia is planning to invade its former Soviet neighbour.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered the sober warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a meeting on Thursday to discuss the conflict that has been destabilising Ukraine since 2014.
After a formal handshake, the pair sat down in front of reporters for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s summit in Stockholm, Sweden.
In their private talks, Mr Blinken said the US was prepared to “impose significant costs” if Moscow chose the path of military escalation, according to a readout from Washington.
He told Moscow to pull back its forces to a “peacetime posture” after a troop build-up which Nato described as unexplained.
Mr Lavrov suggested the Kremlin was ready to settle the crisis and said Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his interest in avoiding a conflict with the Ukrainians.
The Russian minister told his American counterpart he wanted to hear what Washington thought Moscow should do to introduce a peace deal in eastern Ukraine.
He appeared keen to get the discussions started without first speaking to reporters, but Mr Blinken suggested they both say a few words beforehand.
Mr Blinken said the crisis was at a “critical moment” and that the US harboured “deep concerns about Russia’s plan for renewed aggression against Ukraine”.
“We have a strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy,” he said.
“And that’s what I look forward to discussing with Sergey, including by both parties, full implementation of the Minsk agreements with Russia pulling back its forces.
“The United States is willing to facilitate that. But and again, in the spirit of being clear and candid, which is the best thing to do, if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.”
The Minsk accords were brokered in 2015 and offered a framework for resolving the conflict.
The US separately moved on Thursday to tighten sanctions on Russia's ally, Belarus, targeting 20 people and 12 entities in the country amid a migrant crisis allegedly engineered by the ex-Soviet country.
In his talks with Russia, Mr Blinken also touched on the continuing negotiations between Western countries and Iran that are aimed at salvaging a nuclear deal, saying Russia and the US have a “shared interest in Iran not acquiring a nuclear weapon".
He welcomed the resumption of talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet states, to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
He hoped the US and Russia can “work on that together as well”.
The US Secretary of State also referred to the cases of Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, two Americans detained in Russia, and said it was an “absolute priority” for Washington to secure their release.
Mr Lavrov said any further moves by the US and its Nato allies would constitute a threat to Russia.
He said the “nightmare scenario of a military confrontation was returning” in Europe and accused Nato of bringing military infrastructure “closer to the Russian borders".
He urged the West to consider “relevant proposals” Moscow would present soon to prevent the military alliance’s expansion to the east.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Ukraine’s admission into Nato would be a “red line” for Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed Mr Lavrov, suggesting it was Ukraine taking “provocative action” on the border. “The probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high,” he said.
He objected to a comment by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that Kiev's aim was to liberate Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
“We see this as a direct threat to Russia,” Mr Peskov said.
It was the first face-to-face meeting of representatives of their governments in weeks.
The discussions came after the pair had what was described as an “intense conversation” about Ukraine at an informal dinner on Wednesday evening.
Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE chairwoman Ann Linde told Swedish TV channel SVT the pair had been critical of each other’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine.
“The atmosphere was both serious and intense, there were quite a few exchanges between Blinken and Lavrov, especially about Ukraine, and they criticised each other,” said Ms Linde.
“It is positive that you talk face to face and can show criticism.”
Mr Blinken and Mr Lavrov are among foreign ministers from 57 nations attending the OSCE Ministerial Council talks in the Swedish capital.
On Wednesday, Mr Blinken delivered another warning to Russia while attending a Nato conference in Riga, Latvia.
He said the Joe Biden administration would impose “high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past”, if Russia invaded Ukraine.
He also said the sides should recommit to the Minsk accords. Moscow has accused Kiev of seeking to sabotage those accords, a charge Ukraine rejects.