Blinken and Lavrov to meet in Geneva as Ukraine tensions soar

US official warns Russian invasion could come 'at any point'

Ukrainian soldiers near the front line. Russian forces and military equipment are massed near the Ukrainian border. Getty Images

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his Russian counterpart in Switzerland this week as tensions soar over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The hastily arranged trip aims to show US support for Ukraine and impress on Russia the need for de-escalation.

“We are now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine," a senior State Department official told reporters.

The State Department said Mr Blinken will travel to Kiev on Wednesday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He then will go to Berlin before meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.

Earlier, Mr Lavrov said his country would come back to the negotiating table only once Nato responded to Moscow’s security proposals for an overarching approach to improve relations.

Inconclusive diplomatic talks between Moscow and the West in Europe last week failed to resolve stark disagreements over Ukraine and other security matters.

Instead, those meetings appear to have increased fears of a Russian invasion, and President Joe Biden's administration has accused Russia of preparing a “false flag operation” to use as a pretext for intervention. Russia has angrily denied the charge.

Instead of dialling tensions down, Russia has done the "exact opposite", the US official noted, "including during and after our diplomatic engagements in Europe."

About 100,000 Russian troops are massed on its border with Ukraine, leading to fears in some western capitals that an invasion is imminent. Russia rejects the invasion claims.

The sweeping guarantees sought by President Vladimir Putin include a ban on Ukraine joining Nato, something the military alliance has said Russia has no right to veto.

“We are now awaiting responses to these proposals – as we were promised – in order to continue negotiations,” Mr Lavrov said during a press conference with visiting German counterpart Annalena Baerbock.

“Let's hope these talks will continue,” he said. "Time is running out to save negotiations."

Nato Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, speaking after Mr Lavrov’s comments, said the alliance was prepared to look at ways to improve military and civilian lines of communication with Russia, as well as arms control.

“Nato allies are also prepared to discuss concrete proposals on how to reduce risks and enhance transparency regarding military activities, and how to reduce space and cyber threats,” Mr Stoltenberg said in Brussels alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

“We're also prepared to resume the exchange of briefings on exercises and our respective nuclear policies.”

Mr Stoltenberg reiterated that Nato would not compromise on core principles, including the right of each nation to choose its path – a probable reference to Russia’s demand to not allow Ukraine to join the alliance.

The meetings of the Nato-Russia Council sought to “address our concerns but also listen to Russia's concerns, and to try to find a way forward to prevent any military attack against Ukraine”, Mr Stoltenberg said.

Ms Baerbock, who was in Moscow after meetings in Kiev, said it was difficult for the West to believe Russia's claims it had nothing planned.

“Over the past few weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops, equipment and tanks have been deployed near Ukraine for no reason. It's hard not to see that as a threat,” she said.

Mr Stoltenberg reiterated Nato’s line that Russia will face repercussions if it does invade Ukraine.

“We send a very clear message to Russia if they once again decide to use force against Ukraine it will come with a high cost for Russia – economic, financial, political sanctions. Nato allies also provide support to Ukraine,” he said, a sentiment echoed by Mr Scholz.

Nato member Britain on Monday announced it was sending weapons to Ukraine.

“Ukraine has every right to defend its borders, and this new package of aid further enhances its ability to do so,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said.

The types of equipment being sent “are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia”, he said, describing them as “light, anti-armour, defensive weapon systems".

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday described the announcement of the shipments as “extremely dangerous” and “not conducive to reducing tensions".

The US official insisted there is still an opportunity to resolve the situation, but said the US is also making plans in case diplomacy fails.

“We are conducting normal contingency planning, as we always do, in terms of embassies and US citizens in Ukraine," the official said.

Updated: January 18, 2022, 9:20 PM