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Friday, May 20, 2022

Blinken to meet senior Russian amid rising tensions in Ukraine


WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will meet with his Russian counterpart in Switzerland this week as tensions between the US and Russia escalate over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the State Department said Tuesday.

The State Department said Blinken will travel to Kiev on Wednesday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, then travel to Berlin and then meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. The hastily arranged trip is meant to show U.S. support for Ukraine and convince Russia of the need to de-escalate.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed the urgency. “Now we are at a stage when Russia can launch an attack on Ukraine at any moment. And what Secretary Blinken is going to do is make it very clear that there is a diplomatic way forward,” she said.

Psaki said Russian President Vladimir Putin has created a crisis by amassing 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, and he and the Russians must decide whether to invade and then “suffer serious economic consequences.”

The U.S. has not concluded whether Putin is planning an invasion or a show of force aimed at securing security concessions without real conflict. Russia has shrugged off calls to withdraw its troops, saying it has the right to deploy its troops anywhere on its territory.

Blinken’s meetings follow fruitless diplomatic talks between Moscow and the West in Europe last week that failed to resolve serious differences over Ukraine and other security issues.

Instead, these meetings appear to have heightened fears of a Russian invasion, with the Biden administration accusing Russia of plotting a “false flag operation” to use as a pretext for intervention. Russia angrily denied the accusation.

From Kiev, Blinken will travel to Berlin, where he will meet with his German, British and French counterparts to discuss a possible response to any Russian military action. On Friday in Geneva, Blinken will test Lavrov for Russia’s interest in a “diplomatic way out of the crisis” on condition of anonymity.

“Blinken’s travels and consultations are part of a diplomatic effort to de-escalate tensions caused by Russia’s military buildup and ongoing aggression against Ukraine,” the State Department said in a statement.

Blinken will meet with Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday “to reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the State Department said.

The trip follows extensive diplomacy with our European allies and partners on a unified approach to addressing the threat Russia poses to Ukraine and our joint efforts to encourage its choice of diplomacy and de-escalation in the interests of security and stability.

CIA Director William Burns visited Kiev last Wednesday to consult with his Ukrainian counterparts and discuss current risk assessments for Ukraine, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity to discuss Burns’ schedule, which is classified. While there, he also discussed the current situation with Zelenskiy and efforts to de-escalate tensions.

On Tuesday, Blinken spoke by phone with Lavrov, discussing diplomatic talks and meetings that took place last week. The State Department said Blinken “stressed the importance of continuing the diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions” around the Russian-Ukrainian situation and “reaffirmed the unwavering US commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On Monday, Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, denied US accusations that his country was preparing a pretext to invade Ukraine. In an interview with reporters, he called the US statement “complete disinformation.”

Lavrov confirmed that Russia expects a written response this week from the United States and its allies to Moscow’s request for mandatory guarantees that NATO will not take Ukraine or any other post-Soviet countries and deploy its forces and weapons there.

Blinken stressed to Lavrov on Tuesday that any discussion of European security “should include NATO allies and European partners, including Ukraine,” the State Department said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov, in a conversation with Blinken, emphasized key aspects of the Russian draft documents providing for “legally binding guarantees of Russia’s security in accordance with the principle of indivisibility of security, approved by all countries of the Euro-Atlantic region.” It says that Lavrov emphasized the importance for Washington to provide a prompt written response to the Russian proposals.

Washington and its allies strongly rejected Moscow’s demands during last week’s US-Russian talks in Geneva and the related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels.

The White House said Friday that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Russia has already deployed its operatives to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine to carry out acts of sabotage there and blamed them on Ukraine to create a pretext for a possible invasion.

On the eve of Blinken’s visit to Kiev, a delegation of US senators visited Ukraine to emphasize the support of the country by Congress.

“Our bipartisan delegation to Congress sends a clear message to the global community: The United States stands with our Ukrainian partners unwaveringly in defending their sovereignty and in the face of ongoing Russian aggression,” said Sen. Zhanna Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat. in a statement.

Speaking during a visit to Kiev on Monday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Berbock warned that “any further escalation will come at a high cost to the Russian regime – economic, political and strategic” and stressed the need to continue talks.

“We are ready for a serious dialogue with Russia, because diplomacy is the only way to defuse this extremely dangerous situation at the moment,” she said.

In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula after overthrowing the Moscow-friendly leader of Ukraine, and also supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in almost eight years of fighting between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland, called the Donbass.

Putin warned that Moscow would take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West ignored its demands.


Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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