GENEVA — The United States and Russia have sought to lower the temperature in a heated standoff over Ukraine, even though they reported no breakthrough in high-level, high-stakes talks on Friday aimed at preventing a dreaded Russian invasion.
Armed with seemingly intractable and diametrically opposed demands, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva for around 90 minutes at what the American called a “critical moment”.
But there was no apparent movement on either side, and Blinken said the United States and its allies remained committed to rejecting Russia’s most important demands.
Nonetheless, Blinken told Lavrov that the United States would present Russia with written responses to its proposals next week and suggested the two men would likely meet again shortly thereafter.
With around 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine, many fear Moscow is planning an invasion, although Russia denies this. The United States and its allies are working to present a united front to prevent this or to coordinate a strong response if they cannot.
“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs today, but I think we’re now on a clearer path to understanding everyone’s positions,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.
Blinken said Lavrov repeated Russia’s insistence that it had no intention of invading Ukraine, but stressed that the United States and its allies were not convinced. .
“We look at what is visible to everyone, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference,” he said, adding that Russia should withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border if it wanted to prove his point.
Lavrov, meanwhile, called the talks “constructive and helpful” and said the United States had agreed to provide written responses to Russian requests to Ukraine and NATO next week. This could at least delay any impending attack for a few days.
But Lavrov declined to characterize the American commitment.
“I can’t say whether we’re on the right track or not,” he told reporters. “We will understand this when we receive the written response from the United States to all of our proposals.”
Moscow demanded that the NATO alliance promise that Ukraine – a former Soviet republic – will never be allowed to join. He also wants the allies to withdraw troops and military equipment from parts of Eastern Europe.
The United States and its NATO allies have flatly rejected those demands and say Russian President Vladimir Putin knows they are not leaving. They said they were open to less dramatic moves.
Blinken said the United States would be open to a meeting between Putin and US President Joe Biden, if it was “helpful and productive”. The two leaders met in person once, in Geneva, and had several virtual conversations about Ukraine that proved largely inconclusive.
Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised “tough” consequences such as biting economic sanctions – but not military action – against Russia if an invasion takes place.
Blinken repeated that warning on Friday. He said the United States and its allies were committed to diplomacy, but also committed “if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to continue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe”.
But he said he also wanted to take the opportunity to share directly with Mr Lavrov “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns you have raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have in about Russia’s actions”.
Ukraine is already in the throes of conflict. Russia’s Putin seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, in a latent but largely stalemated conflict with Ukrainian forces that has left more than 14,000 dead. Putin has faced limited international consequences for these moves, but the West says another invasion would be different.
Ahead of his meeting with Lavrov, Blinken met with the Ukrainian president in Kiev and senior British, French and German diplomats in Berlin this week.
In addition to its repeated verbal warnings to Russia, the United States tightened sanctions on Thursday. The US Treasury Department has imposed new measures on four Ukrainian officials. Blinken said the four were at the center of a Kremlin effort begun in 2020 to undermine Ukraine’s ability to “function independently.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday reiterated its demands that NATO not expand into Ukraine, that no alliance weapons be deployed near Russian borders and that alliance forces withdraw from Central and Eastern Europe.
The State Department, meanwhile, issued three statements — two on Russian “disinformation,” including on Ukraine, and another titled “Acting to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilization Campaign in Ukraine.” The documents accused Russia and Putin of trying to reconstitute the former Soviet Union through intimidation and force.
The Russian Foreign Ministry mocked these statements, saying they must have been prepared by an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”, and Lavrov caustically dismissed them.
“I hope everyone at the State Department was not working on these documents and some were working on the essence of our proposals and their substance,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also rejected Western claims that Moscow was trying to rebuild the Soviet empire and carve out an area of influence in Eastern Europe, saying it is the West that thinks in categories of areas of influence.
Blinken was careful to stress American unity with its allies against a possible Russian invasion, something that apparently took a hit earlier this week when Biden drew widespread criticism for saying retaliation for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details and that a “minor incursion” could cause discord among Western allies.
On Thursday, Biden sought to clarify his comments by warning that any movement of Russian troops across the Ukrainian border would constitute an invasion and that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for such an action.
“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Biden said. “He has no misunderstanding: all assembled Russian units are crossing the Ukrainian border, it’s an invasion.”
Russia on Thursday accused the West of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing the delivery of arms to the country by British military transport planes in recent days.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.