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US warns Russia of risk of 'confrontation,' ahead of Ukraine talks

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has insisted that talks will yield no progress so long as Russia has a “gun to Ukraine’s head”.
Jan 9th 2022, 10:23 AM 23,906 41

Updated Jan 9th 2022, 4:20 PM

US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken today said Russia had to choose between dialogue and confrontation, ahead of talks in Geneva on soaring tensions over Ukraine.

“There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation,” Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” show.

“The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We are about to test the proposition about which path President Putin is prepared to take.”

Vladimir Putin’s government has reportedly massed tens of thousands of military troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine, drawing Washington into a Cold War-style stand-off.

Blinken warned that any positive outcome from the talks would rely in part on Russia’s willingness to stand down from its aggressive posture, which he likened to “an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head.”

“So if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation, Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses to Ukraine,” US President Joe Biden’s top diplomat said.

On Sunday Moscow ruled out any concession at the highly anticipated talks, which open a week of diplomacy in which Russian officials will meet with NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Russia’s deputy foreign minister told Russian news agencies ahead of his talks in Geneva the Kremlin was also “disappointed” with signals coming from both Washington and Brussels, where NATO and the European Union are based.

The high-level discussions start a week of diplomacy in which Russia will meet with NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the US trying to assure European allies they will not be sidelined.

The Kremlin is insisting NATO must never grant membership to ex-Soviet Ukraine, which is pushing to join.

The United States, to be represented by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, agreed to talks even though it made plain that many of Moscow’s proposals are non-starters.

Originally scheduled to start tomorrow, Sherman is now due to have a working dinner with Ryabkov this evening, said a State Department spokesperson.

“We will not agree to any concession. That is completely excluded,” Ryabkov said. “We are disappointed with the signals coming in the last few days from Washington but also from Brussels.”

Blinken made the Sunday talk show rounds playing up the need for dialogue.

He acknowledged he was not anticipating major breakthroughs in the talks, but stressed there were potential punishments awaiting Washington’s rival if it does not engage in diplomacy.

Russia could face severe economic and financial consequences, “as well as NATO almost certainly having to reinforce its position near Russia as well as continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”

“This is not just me saying it. We have had the G7 (Group of Seven leading democracies) make clear there would be massive consequences. The European Union and NATO partners and allies as well.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin met his US counterpart Joe Biden in Geneva in June and agreed on regular “stability” talks between Sherman and Ryabkov, who will again lead the Russian delegation.

‘Massive’ retaliation

In two phone calls to Putin, Biden has warned of severe consequences if Russia invades Ukraine.

Measures under consideration include sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, cancelling Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany or, in the most drastic scenario, severing Russia’s links to the world’s banking system.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that Washington would also send more troops to eastern NATO members such as Poland and the Baltics if Russia invaded.

Europeans have showed solidarity, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visiting the frontline in Ukraine, although some nations are expected to hesitate at the strongest measures.

“Whatever the solution, Europe has to be involved,” EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

Russia insists it was deceived after the Cold War and understood that NATO would not expand.

Instead, the US-led alliance accepted most of the former Warsaw Pact nations and the three Baltic nations that were under Soviet rule.

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Russia has put intense pressure on neighbouring Ukraine since 2014 after a revolution overthrew a government that had sided with the Kremlin against moving closer to Europe.

Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and backs an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.

At a time when Russia is also intervening to shore up allies facing popular uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, Moscow has insisted it wants concrete progress in talks with Washington.

Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov warned after the call with Biden that the United States would make a “colossal mistake” if it went ahead with sanctions.

‘Gigantic bluff’?

“It is very likely that we will encounter the reticence of our US and NATO colleagues to really perceive what we need,” Ryabkov said.

In spite “of the threats that are constantly formulated against us… we wil make no concession,” he said, adding it would “amount to acting against the interests of our seccurity.”

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, meeting foreign ministers of the alliance on Friday, said there remained real risks of a Russian invasion.

But John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, described the Russian troop build-up as a “gigantic bluff” by Putin to seek a negotiated agreement.

“They are trying to see if the Biden administration or Europe will blink,” said Herbst, now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

“As long as the Biden administration remains at least as strong as it is now,” he said, “it probably is enough to keep Putin from striking large into Ukraine, but I don’t rule out something smaller.”

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the Geneva talks were more about preventing the Ukraine crisis from accelerating than reaching a major deal.

 © AFP 2022

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