US, Russia take more measured stance in talks with Ukraine

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GENEVA — The United States and Russia scaled back their divisive rhetoric on Eastern European security on Friday, agreeing to extend negotiations as the Biden administration pursues a flimsy diplomatic course to avert a Russian invasion of Europe. ‘Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov, at a hastily arranged meeting in Geneva that the United States would provide written responses next week. Russia’s demands that the West end its military presence in Eastern Europe.

Both sides said the two diplomats planned to speak again after that, and they left the door open for another conversation between President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin to try to resolve the crisis.

Even as the threat of a Russian invasion remained real, the conciliatory tone and lack of an ultimatum suggested both sides were trying to contain tensions and give diplomacy time to play. And the longer negotiation time frame contrasted with Mr Biden’s comments two days earlier when he said he believed Mr Putin was ready to use military force.

“We didn’t expect breakthroughs to happen today,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting. “But I think we are now on a clearer path in terms of understanding everyone’s concerns.”

Mr Lavrov described the talks as “a useful and honest discussion”, while Mr Blinken called them “direct, professional” and “non-controversial”. Mr. Lavrov largely refrained from the impassioned language that other Russian officials had used after previous talks this month, and he told reporters that Mr. Blinken had agreed “that it is necessary to have a more reasonable dialogue”.

“I hope the emotions calm down a bit,” Lavrov said.

Yet Friday’s meeting was just one moment in a crisis, evoking the worst moments of the Cold War, which has been brewing for weeks. Analysts said the risks of a Russian invasion of Ukraine had not diminished, with troops, tanks and missiles continuing to be shipped through Russia towards the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s military intelligence service estimates that 127,000 Russian troops are now deployed at attack range, including in Ukraine’s northern neighbor Belarus, where Belarusian and Russian forces will conduct joint military drills next month .

Sam Charap, a Russian security analyst at the RAND Corporation, said war was still not inevitable – but he saw no new signs on Friday, despite the softer rhetoric, that Russia or the United States was willing to compromise on key issues that had proven intractable in previous negotiating sessions.

“It doesn’t appear that either side is particularly interested in leaving the positions they held a week ago,” Mr Charap said.

Russia’s demands include a legally binding deal to halt NATO’s eastward expansion and a withdrawal of NATO troops from countries like Poland and the Baltics that were once aligned with the Soviet Union. or were part of it. The United States dismissed those proposals as non-starters, and Mr Blinken reiterated after Friday’s meeting that Ukrainians had a “sovereign right” to “write their own future”.

“There’s no commercial space there – none,” said Blinken, who made a whirlwind diplomatic trip to Europe on Friday, after stops in Kyiv and Berlin.

Still, Mr Blinken said he believed there was a way to develop agreements with Russia “that guarantee our mutual security”. In Washington, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr Biden would travel to Camp David with his national security team this weekend to discuss the situation.

“We will also continue to consult with our allies and partners and will respond next week in writing,” Ms Psaki said.

Western officials had watched the talks and hoped a more measured approach would emerge. A note of optimism came from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who was asked about the prospects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the hours after the Blinken-Lavrov meeting ended.

“I’m convinced that won’t happen, and I very much hope I’m right,” Guterres told reporters at a press briefing at UN headquarters in New York. Mr. Guterres did not explain why he took this position.

In and around Ukraine, tensions continued to mount. Russia’s transport of more troops, armor and advanced anti-aircraft systems to Belarus, a Russian ally, has brought a growing force within reach of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

And the United States has authorized Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian forces, increasing deliveries of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine that Britain began this month. The State Department also confirmed this week that the Biden administration has approved an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine, on top of $450 million last fiscal year.

The delivery of the Stinger missiles would be a powerful symbolic gesture from the United States. The CIA supplied the weapons systems to mujahideen fighters during the Soviet war with Afghanistan in the 1980s, enabling them to shoot down hundreds of planes and helicopters and hasten the eventual Soviet withdrawal.

Still, after weeks of heated words, there were signs both sides were trying to contain tensions and buy diplomacy time. Their agreement on Friday to continue negotiating extends a series of talks that began on December 30 with a phone call between Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden, and continued with a series of three meetings across Europe last week that provided no breakthrough but kept Russia from declaring it had no choice but to use force.

It’s unclear who could benefit most from a delay if Russia ends up invading Ukraine – a move US officials believe Mr Putin has yet to make. The United States may want more time to rally and coordinate its allies and plan contingency options. But the Russians can relish the appearance of a prolonged, good-faith diplomatic effort before any potential invasion, and can use the time to mobilize more troops.

Mr. Blinken’s acknowledgment that the United States would provide a written response to Russia’s demands was the clearest the Biden administration had been that it would respond to that request. Senior US officials have said the Kremlin’s insistence on written responses reflects the centralized nature of a system in which Mr Putin wields overwhelming power and government bureaucracy has limited influence. They believe Mr. Putin wants to see America’s specific position with his own eyes.

Mr. Lavrov repeated Russia’s denials that it had plans to attack Ukraine and said he and Mr. Blinken agreed to talk again after the United States provided its response. Mr Putin warned that Russia would take unspecified “military-technical” measures to ensure its security if the West did not agree to its demands.

“I can’t say whether or not we’re on the right track,” Lavrov said. “We will understand this when we have the American response on paper to all points of our proposals.”

Mr Biden prompted a diplomatic blowback on Wednesday when he said a “limited incursion” by Russia into Ukraine could spark arguments among NATO members over a proportionate response. Mr Biden clarified the comment on Thursday, insisting that any Russian military move in Ukraine would provoke “a severe and coordinated economic response”.

Mr. Blinken echoed that position on Friday. But when asked about Mr Biden’s statement in early December that he considered the direct involvement of US troops “irrelevant”, Mr Blinken did not deviate from that line.

“We are determined to do everything in our power to defend him and prevent or deter any aggression directly against him,” he said of Ukraine. But since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, a status which, under the alliance’s Article Five, would legally commit America to its military defense, Mr. Blinken made it clear that devoting US forces in a conflict was not an option. “It’s not covered by the Article Five commitment,” he said.

US officials had expressed low expectations for Mr. Blinken meeting with Mr. Lavrov, and in brief remarks beforehand, the two envoys expressed little hope for a breakthrough.

Still, Mr. Blinken expressed some optimism. On the drive to meet Mr. Lavrov at a waterfront hotel, Mr. Blinken noticed white heads on a windy Lake Geneva, according to a senior State Department official. He told his colleagues he hoped the meeting would calm the waters.

Reporting was provided by Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, Steven Erlanger from Brussels and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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