The US and Russia have met to discuss the crisis in Ukraine – and sought to lower the temperature after days of heated standoff over a feared Russian invasion.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken, speaking after meeting his Russian counterpart, said: “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.”
He held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva for roughly 90 minutes at what the American said was a “critical moment.”
Mr Blinken reiterated his warning that any movement of “Russian military forces across Ukraine’s border” would be met with a “swift, severe and united response”.
With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border, many fear the Kremlin is preparing an invasion, leading to a bloody conflict, although it denies this.
Mr Blinken said the discussion with Mr Lavrov was not a negotiation but “a candid exchange of views”.
“I conveyed the position of the US and our European allies and partners that we stand firmly with Ukraine in support of its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
“We have been clear, if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine’s border, that is a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies.”
The US secretary of state also warned of Russia’s “extensive playbook of aggression short of military action”, which he said includes “cyberattacks, paramilitary tactics and other means of advancing their interests aggressively without using military action”.
“Those types of Russian aggression, will be met with a decisive, calibrated and again united response,” Mr Blinken said.
Analysis: Why Ukraine’s border tensions matter to us all
A huge amount is at stake in these talks and the urgency increases with each failed round of
Vladimir Putin wants to wind the clock back to the mid-90s and has made explicit threats about
military action if his demands are not met.
If that means an invasion of Ukraine, numerous military figures predict violence in Europe on a scale
not seen since the Second World War.
His deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, last week warned of consequences for security across
the entire continent of Europe if Putin’s demands are not met.
That means we could all feel the impact of diplomatic failure even though Ukraine is on the other side of Europe.
There is little sign of progress in these talks. One Russian official this morning told Sky News the
Americans are stubborn as hell.
It does not sound like the deadlock has been broken.
But they may have found enough to continue talking, perhaps at a presidential level next.
On Russia’s repeated insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, Mr Blinken said: “We’re looking at what is visible to all, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference.”
Mr Lavrov described the talks in Geneva as “constructive and useful” and said the US had agreed to provide written responses to Russian demands on Ukraine and NATO next week.
But he said: “I can’t say whether we are on the right path or not.
“We will see when we get the American responses.”
Mr Lavrov also said he hoped “emotions would cool down” over Ukraine and repeated the claim that Russia posed no threat to its former Soviet neighbour.
Moscow has demanded that NATO promise Ukraine will never be allowed to join the military alliance.
It also wants the allies to remove troops and military equipment from parts of eastern Europe.
However, the US and its allies have rejected these demands and repeatedly promised “severe” consequences including tough economic sanctions – though not military action – against Russia if an invasion goes ahead.
It came as the US treasury department slapped new sanctions on four Ukrainian officials, accused of being at the centre of a Kremlin effort to damage Ukraine’s ability to “independently function”.
Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country, that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
Mr Putin has faced limited international consequences for those moves, but the West says a new invasion would be different.
Mr Blinken has also sought to stress US unity with its partners after US President Joe Biden drew widespread criticism for saying retaliation for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the circumstances and that a “minor incursion” would see a lesser response.
Mr Biden subsequently sought to clarify his comments by cautioning that any troop movements across Ukraine’s border would constitute an invasion and that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for such an action.
Moscow has denied it is planning an offensive and instead accused the West of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing the supply of thousands of anti-tank weapons by the British military, in the face of the Kremlin troop build-up.