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Top US and Russian diplomats hold talks on Ukraine amid ‘critical moment’

US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva.

Image: PA

US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken has said he asked Russia to prove its intentions by pulling back troops deployed on Ukraine’s borders.

Blinken was speaking following a talks with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland.

Both sides sought to lower the temperature in a heated stand-off over Ukraine, even as they said no breakthrough was imminent in the crisis that has raised fears of a possible Russian invasion.

“We have heard Russian officials say that they have no intention of invading Ukraine. In fact, Mr Lavrov repeated that to me today,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.

“If Russia wants to begin to convince the world that it has no aggressive intent toward Ukraine, a very good place to start would be by de-escalating, by bringing back – removing – those forces on Ukraine’s border.”

He also said that US President Joe Biden is ready to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin if they can make progress on Ukraine.

“President Biden met here in Geneva with President Putin, he’s spoken to him on the phone or via videoconference on a number of occasions, and if we conclude (and) the Russians conclude that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between them, we’re certainly prepared to do that,” he told reporters.

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine, many fear Moscow is preparing an invasion, although Russia denies that.

The US and its allies are scrambling to present a united front to prevent that or co-ordinate a tough response if they cannot.

“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clearer path to understanding each other’s positions,” Blinken said.

2.64856087 US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. Source: PA

Blinken said Lavrov repeated Russia’s insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine but he stressed that the US and its allies were not convinced of that.

“We’re looking at what is visible to all, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference,” he said.

Lavrov, meanwhile, called the talks “constructive and useful” and said that the US agreed to provide written responses to Russian demands on Ukraine and Nato next week. That could at least delay any imminent aggression for a few days.

But Lavrov declined to characterise that pledge.

“I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not,” he told reporters. “We will understand that when we receive the US written response to all of our proposals.”

Moscow has demanded that the Nato alliance promise that Ukraine – a former Soviet republic – will never be allowed to join. It also wants the allies to remove troops and military equipment from parts of eastern Europe.

The US and its Nato allies have flatly rejected those demands and say that Russian President Vladimir Putin knows they are non-starters. They have said they are open to less dramatic moves.

Blinken said the US would be open to a meeting between Putin and US President Joe Biden, if it would be “useful and productive”.

‘Swift and severe response’

Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised “severe” consequences such as tough economic sanctions – though not military action – against Russia if an invasion goes ahead.

Blinken repeated that warning before the talks.

He said the US and its allies were committed to diplomacy, but also committed “if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to pursue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe response”.

But he said he also wanted to use the opportunity to share directly with Mr Lavrov some “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns that you have raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about Russia’s actions”.

Ukraine is already beset by conflict. Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, part of a simmering but largely stalemated conflict with Ukrainian forces that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

Putin faced limited international consequences for those moves, but the West says a new invasion would be different.

2.64807582 A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles moves along a road in Crimea. Source: PA

Ahead of his meeting with Mr Lavrov, Mr Blinken met Ukraine’s president in Kyiv and top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin this week.

Adding to its repeated verbal warnings to Russia, the United States stepped up sanctions yesterday.

The US treasury department slapped new measures on four Ukrainian officials. Blinken said the four were at the centre of a Kremlin effort which began in 2020 to damage Ukraine’s ability to “independently function”.

The Russian foreign ministry reaffirmed its demands on Friday that Nato not expand into Ukraine, that no alliance weapons be deployed near Russian borders and that alliance forces pull back from Central and Eastern Europe.

The US 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.

The documents accused Russia and Putin of trying to reconstitute the former Soviet Union through intimidation and force.

The Russian foreign ministry mocked those statements, saying they must have been prepared by an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, and Lavrov caustically dismissed them.

“I do hope that not everyone in the state department was working on those materials and there were some who 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 its zone of influence in Eastern Europe, charging that it is the West that thinks in categories of zones of influence.

Blinken has taken pains to stress US unity with its allies in opposition to a possible Russian invasion, something that took an apparent 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 prompt discord among Western allies.

Yesterday, Biden sought to clarify his comments by cautioning 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 of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing the delivery of weapons to the country by British military transport planes in recent days.

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Liz Truss

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will tell Putin he must “desist and step back” from war in Ukraine or risk being dragged into a prolonged conflict like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In a message to the Russian president, the British Foreign Secretary will say the UK and its allies “continue to stand with Ukraine”.

She will urge Putin to engage in “meaningful discussions” about the crisis following the build-up of Russian forces near the border with Ukraine.

Her comments come after US President Joe Biden said he believes Putin does not want a full-scale war and warned the Russian leader would pay a “dear price” if he launches a military incursion.

Truss predicted that an invasion could lead to Russia being drawn into a prolonged and bloody conflict.

She will use a speech in Australia today to call on Putin to “desist and step back from Ukraine before he makes a massive strategic mistake”.

She will claim the “Kremlin has not learned the lessons of history” and that “invasion will only lead to a terrible quagmire and loss of life, as we know from the Soviet-Afghan war and conflict in Chechnya”.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan stretched throughout the 1980s, costing thousands of lives.

The Foreign Secretary and UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace have used their visit to Australia to bolster defence and diplomatic ties with Sydney.

Truss will use her speech at the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney to highlight the need for allies such as the UK and Australia to work together to counter the challenge posed by Russia and China on the world stage.

She will say that “global aggressors” are “emboldened in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War”.

“They seek to export dictatorship as a service around the world.

“That is why regimes like Belarus, North Korea and Myanmar find their closest allies in Moscow and Beijing.”

Truss will say that threats to “freedom, democracy and the rule of law” are global challenges, not regional issues and so require an international response from the “free world”.

“We need to work with partners like Australia, Israel, India, Japan, Indonesia and more,” she will say.

“By building closer ties with our friends and drawing other countries closer to the orbit of free-market democracies, will ultimately make us all safer and freer in the years to come.

“It is time for the free world to stand its ground.”

With reporting from © – AFP, 2022.

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