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US, Russian diplomats meet with Ukraine future on brink

GENEVA (AP) -The top diplomats of Russia and the United States (US) held crucial talks yesterday as a weeks-long standoff over Ukraine teeters on the cusp of a pivotal and potentially violent phase, with rising concerns that Europe may again be beset by war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva, once a key Cold War crossroads, trying to avert a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine amid Moscow’s demands for concessions from NATO over its relationship with the former Soviet republic.

Blinken on Thursday played down any prospects of an immediate fix in the Geneva talks, saying resolving the difficult issues “won’t happen quickly”.

Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised “severe” consequences such as biting economic sanctions – though not military action – against Russia if an invasion goes ahead by 100,000 Russian troops who have been positioned near the Ukrainian border for weeks.

After meeting with Ukraine’s president in Kyiv and top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin this week, Blinken was set for a face-to-face with Lavrov that is shaping up as a possible last-ditch effort at dialogue and a negotiated agreement – but both sides are sticking to so-far-irreconcilable red lines.

On Thursday in Berlin, Blinken warned of a “swift, severe” response from the US and its allies if an invasion is launched, and the US Treasury Department slapped new sanctions on four Ukrainian officials.

Blinken said the four were at the centre of a Kremlin effort begun in 2020 to damage Ukraine’s ability to “independently function.”

A Ukrainian soldier stands in the trench on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels, in Mariupol, Donetsk region. PHOTO: AP

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday laid out its planned agenda for the meeting: texts of two proposals by Moscow for new treaties with both the US and NATO on security guarantees.

The State Department, meanwhile, put out three statements – two on Russian “disinformation”, including specifically on Ukraine, and another entitled “Taking Action to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilisation Campaign in Ukraine.”

Blinken took pains to stress US unity with its allies in opposition to a possible Russian invasion – and tried to do just that on Thursday, a day after US President Joe Biden drew widespread criticism for saying retaliation for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details and that a “minor incursion” could prompt discord among Western allies.

On Thursday, Biden cautioned that any Russian troop movements across Ukraine’s 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: Any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
Russia has denied it is planning an invasion and instead accused the West on Thursday of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing the delivery of weapons to the country by British military transport planes in recent days.

Russia wants binding security guarantees, including a permanent prohibition on Ukrainian membership in NATO, to which Kyiv aspires, and the removal of most of the US and allied military presence in eastern Europe.

The US and its European partners said they are willing to consider certain less-dramatic gestures but that the Russian demands are out of the question and that Putin knows they are non-starters.

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