Top diplomats from Russia and the United States were scheduled to meet in Switzerland on Friday to discuss rising tensions over Ukraine after a spate of meetings between officials from both sides last week failed to yield a breakthrough.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Geneva for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after swerving across Europe to back up US allies’ commitments to sanction Russia if it proceeds with an invasion of Ukraine.
Washington’s hopes of building a united front of opposition against Moscow were complicated by remarks by US President Joe Biden at a news conference on Wednesday, in which he predicted Russia would “move in” on Ukraine and said Moscow would pay dearly .
I am grateful for the important opportunity to meet in Berlin with our European allies on the ongoing crisis with Ukraine caused by Russia. We are all determined to support Ukraine and its people in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions. pic.twitter.com/ktEeejfDI3
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 20, 2022
Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops along its borders with Ukraine, and Western states fear Moscow is planning a new attack on a country it invaded in 2014 to annex the Crimean peninsula. Russia denies planning an attack but says it could take unspecified military action if a list of demands isn’t met, including a promise by NATO never to include Ukraine.
Asked about Biden’s comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia had been receiving similar warnings for at least a month.
“We believe that they can in no way help to defuse the tensions that have now arisen in Europe and, moreover, contribute to the destabilization of the situation,” said Peskov.
On Wednesday in Kiev, Blinken tried to pledge US support to Ukraine. Blinken said before a meeting with German, French and British officials in Berlin on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin could immediately order an invasion.
Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman and Lavrov’s deputy Sergei Ryabkov also met in Geneva last week, where the two sides laid out seemingly irreconcilable positions.
Russia is demanding a promise from NATO not to accept Ukraine as a member and to stop its eastward expansion. That has been rejected by the US-led alliance.
US officials have downplayed hopes for concrete results from Friday’s meeting.
Blinken, who has repeatedly called out what he called Russian “disinformation” aimed at destabilizing Ukraine, said Thursday this week’s diplomatic efforts meant he offered a common view of Western nations on Friday to Russia and urge Moscow to retreat.
“This unity gives us strength – a strength that Russia does not have and cannot match,” said Blinken. “And because of that…I will be able to represent a common view, a common preference on the part of the United States and our European allies and partners to find a diplomatic way forward to de-escalate this conflict.”
“No minor interventions”
But that consensus appeared to be undermined by comments from Biden, who said on Wednesday that the West’s response may not be uniform if Russia makes even a “small incursion” into Ukraine. The comments forced clarifications from government officials but cast doubts among US allies that Washington was willing to give Putin some leeway to avert a full-scale invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted an apparent rebuke on Thursday, reminding “great powers that there are no small incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor losses and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”
We want to remind the great powers that there are no small incursions and small nations. Just as there are no small losses and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say that as the president of a great power 🇺🇦
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) January 20, 2022
Orysia Lutsevych, an analyst on Ukraine at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the Geneva meeting would give the United States an opportunity to clarify Biden’s comments.
“Hopefully Blinken will be able to clear up some of those ambiguities when he has the mandate,” she said. On the Ukrainian side, there is a “certain irritation” that the West is not converting the rhetorical support into concrete actions.
But in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, residents polled by Reuters said they were confident Russia would support them.
“I believe in Putin, he must help us, he must not let us down. We all hope so. I don’t know this Biden guy, and I don’t want to know him, but I believe in Russia,” said one retiree, who gave her name as Tatyana.