Russia 'must choose diplomacy or conflict', Blinken tells Lavrov in 'frank' Ukraine talks

US Secretary of State says the Biden administration is 'preparing resolutely' for both options

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov move to their seats before their crisis talks on Ukraine in Geneva on Friday. AP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the Kremlin must decide what path it wishes to pursue in relation to the Ukraine crisis — diplomacy or conflict.

The US will continue to “prepare resolutely” for both options, Mr Blinken said, following business-like talks in Geneva which he described as "frank".

If the Kremlin chooses the war path, he said the US and its allies would respond with a "swift, severe and a united response".

Both sides discussed Russia's military build-up on the borders of its neighbouring country, which has caused international concern.

Mr Lavrov denied Russia was planning an invasion but Mr Blinken said the US and its allies needed to see a de-escalation, not simply words, to take this seriously.

“So, that’s the choice that Russia faces now: it can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation," Mr Blinken told reporters after the 90 minutes of talks had concluded.

He said he believes the US and Russia hold different interpretations of history, a belief which was reinforced at Friday’s meeting.

“We certainly heard things we strongly disagree with,” Mr Blinken said.

The US agreed to give Russia written responses to a list of demands it had earlier tabled.

Mr Lavrov said Russia had yet to decide “whether we are on the right path or not” regarding its approach to Ukraine, but would understand more after the responses are received.

Speaking at a separate press conference, Mr Lavrov said western leaders “have taken President [Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine] under their wing, condoning anything he does”.

Through a translator, he said he explained to Mr Blinken that Russia has “no plans” to invade Ukraine and dismissed “all these hysterics pandered by our Western counterparts”.

Mr Lavrov insisted Russia had never, through its official representatives, threatened Ukraine.

“On many occasions we have warned that the only thing that the Kyiv regime is doing is speculating under its patronage provided to it by its western sponsors," he said.

Mr Lavrov referred to Friday’s talks as “constructive and useful” and said that the US agreed to provide written responses to Russian demands on Ukraine and Nato next week.

That could at least delay any imminent aggression for a few days. But he declined to characterise that step.

“We are waiting for a written response and once this happens we will plan new contact at our level,” Mr Lavrov told reporters.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. President [Vladimir] Putin is always ready for contact with President [Joe] Biden but these contacts have to be prepared very seriously."

While making clear that progress would be limited so long as Russian troops remained massed on Ukraine's border, Mr Blinken said he planned to meet again with Mr Lavrov and did not rule out a summit between Mr Biden and Mr Putin.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Mr Biden would head to the Camp David presidential retreat with his national security team at the weekend to discuss the situation.

“We’ve been clear: if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine’s border that’s a renewed invasion it will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies," Mr Blinken said.

He also warned Moscow against using non-military means to hit Ukraine, such as cyber attacks.

“Those types of Russian aggression will also be met with a decisive, calibrated — and again — united response,” Mr Blinken said.

The Iran nuclear deal was also discussed at the meeting, with Mr Blinken saying efforts to salvage the agreement had reached a “decisive moment” and if no breakthrough is achieved in the coming weeks it will be impossible to revive the accord.

He said Russia “shares the sense of urgency” on the need to revive the deal.

Earlier, Mr Blinken said discussions between the US and Russia over Ukraine had reached a “critical moment” as he arrived at a Geneva hotel for the last-ditch crisis talks.

The high-stakes meeting with Mr Lavrov was largely seen as one of the final chances to avert a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory.

Mr Blinken arrived at the Hotel President Wilson on Friday morning and posed for photos with Mr Lavrov before they took their seats for the talks.

"What we expect is concrete answers to our concrete proposals," Mr Lavrov said. "I’m referring particularly to the principle of indivisibility of security, as well as the obligation of countries not to strengthen their own security at the expense of security of others.

"We would very much be interested to listen to how the US interprets these obligations and these principles."

Mr Lavrov said the Kremlin was “grateful” to Washington for participating in the security talks but played down the prospect of Moscow and Washington resolving their differences on the Ukrainian issue.

Mr Blinken warned they had reached a “decisive juncture” in the crisis over Ukraine.

“This is a critical moment. You're right: we don't expect to resolve our differences here today,” Mr Blinken said.

“But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy, of dialogue remains open. We’re committed to walking that path, to resolving our differences peacefully and I hope to test that proposition today.

"I’ll also make clear the fundamental principles that we are committed to defend."

In light of his talks with European allies earlier this week, Mr Blinken said the US and its partners had "deep concerns" over Russia's actions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said “the situation is difficult” ahead of Mr Lavrov's meeting with Mr Blinken.

“The Americans escalating things yesterday doesn’t make it any easier,” Mr Ryabkov said.

Asked by a reporter why Russia was afraid of Ukraine pursuing a pro-western path, Mr Ryabkov responded: “We not afraid of anyone — not even the US.”

Russia's demands include a guarantee to bar its former Soviet neighbour from joining Nato, and Moscow wants the transatlantic alliance to roll back its forces to positions they held in 1997, before central and eastern European nations joined the treaty.

The US and its Nato allies have rejected those demands.

Russia went a step further on Friday, with the foreign ministry saying Moscow wanted the “withdrawal of foreign forces, hardware and arms” from countries that were not Nato members before 1997, including Bulgaria and Romania.

Robert Gates, who served as US defence secretary in the Bush and Obama administrations, said Mr Putin now faces a sticky situation both domestically and overseas due to the Ukraine crisis.

Writing in the UK's Financial Times, Mr Gates said Mr Putin “must use those troops soon or face the humiliation of withdrawing them without achieving anything except pushing Ukraine closer to the West.”

“In either case, he has placed himself in a difficult position at home and abroad. The US and its allies must do what they can to exacerbate his difficulties,” he said.

A Kremlin ally said Russia had the capabilities to unleash “countermeasures which could devastate” the West.

Sergey Karaganov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, made the chilling warning during an interview on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.

“We have said several times that if a war was unleashed against us … there is all kinds of measures that could be done,” he said.

The meeting in Geneva would allow Washington’s and Moscow’s representatives to compare their understanding of the results of three sets of discussions held early this month between the two countries and European nations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday.

Russia is pushing ahead with its military build-up around the border with Ukraine.

It has also sent troops and armour to within a few miles of the Ukrainian border with Belarus.

The Kremlin says Russian personnel are in Belarus for joint drills due to start on February 10. Critics say the presence of Russian soldiers in Belarus is yet another tactic being used to intimidate Ukraine.

Two divisions of S-400 air-defence systems are also being dispatched to Belarus, Russia’s Defence Ministry was reported as saying on Friday.

Earlier on Friday, the UK told its allies to reduce their economic dependence on Russia.

Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s Prime Minister, said Russia was responsible for creating the crisis yet also “offers to solve the situation”.

“We must not fall into that trap,” she told Sky News.

Before Friday's meeting, Mr Biden said any Russian troop movements across Ukraine’s border would constitute an invasion and that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for such an action.

Mr Biden’s warning is the latest White House effort to clear up comments he made on Wednesday when he suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukrainian territory could result in a more measured response by the US and allies.

The Democrat leader faced an avalanche of criticism from Republicans and Ukrainian officials over his remarks. Some argued his comments had invited limited Russian military action in Ukraine.

Seeking to clarify his comments, Mr Biden touched on the issue at the start of a meeting at the White House focused on domestic policy.

As US officials worked to reassure European allies on their resolve, Mr Biden laid out his clearest line yet on what action would trigger serious punishment.

He said he told Mr Putin “very clearly” that Russia faced severe US and European sanctions if an attack took place.

“If any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” he said.

Updated: February 08, 2023, 8:50 AM