AFP / Washington
Moscow yesterday rejected fresh talks on Ukraine unless the West responds to its demands, as the US and Nato pushed for more negotiations to avert a possible Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, efforts have intensified to prevent a conflict and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was preparing to fly to Kyiv for talks today.
Blinken’s trip, which will also take him to Berlin for meetings with European allies, is the latest in a diplomatic effort to prevent tensions over Ukraine from escalating into a new European war.
Talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna last week failed to ease fears, with Russia insisting its demands for sweeping security guarantees — including a permanent ban on Ukraine joining Nato — be taken seriously.
Germany signalled yesterday that it could halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock held talks in Moscow and Kyiv to try to ease tensions.
Baerbock warned that Moscow would suffer if it does attack its neighbour, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz signalled that Berlin’s response might include stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing gas to Germany.
Asked about the pipeline after meeting Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Scholz said it was “clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine”.
Scholz has previously said Germany is open to sanctions in the event of a Russian attack and that everything would be on the table.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting Baerbock yesterday that the pipeline would increase European energy security when it is open, and that “attempts to politicise this project” would be counter-productive.
In a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ahead of his trip, Blinken “stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
A readout from the Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov told Blinken that Moscow needs “concrete article-by-article” responses “as soon as possible”.
He called on Blinken “not to replicate speculation about the allegedly impending ‘Russian aggression’”.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg left the door open to more talks, saying he had invited Russia and Nato allies to a series of discussions in the Nato-Russia Council “in the near future”.
The aim is to “address our concerns but also listen to Russia’s concerns, and to try to find a way forward to prevent any military attack against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told a news conference in Berlin.
The State Department said Blinken would fly to Ukraine and meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky today, to “reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Blinken will then head to Berlin tomorrow for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany. They will discuss “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including... readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia,” Price said in a statement.
Blinken and Lavrov are then to meet in Geneva Friday, a US official said. Ukraine, the US and European countries have raised deep concerns over Russia’s troop build-up, despite repeated denials from Moscow that an invasion is planned.
However, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said yesterday the situation was “under control, so please don’t panic”.
US fears Russia could attack ‘at any point’
The White House said yesterday that Russia is ready to attack Ukraine at “any point,” upping its threat assessment ahead of a meeting between the top US and Russian diplomats.
“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “I would say that’s more stark than we have been.”
Psaki’s characterisation of the situation around Ukraine came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva.
A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Blinken’s goal was to see “if there is a diplomatic off-ramp” and “common ground” where Russia can be persuaded to pull back from Ukraine.
If President Vladimir Putin decides to launch an invasion of Ukraine, where Russia already has annexed Crimea and backs pro-Russian separatists in another region, then “severe economic consequences” will be imposed, Psaki said.
“No option is off the table,” she said, warning of an “extremely dangerous situation.”
Psaki blamed the Russian leader, saying “President Putin has created this crisis.”
“There’s the diplomatic path forward. We certainly hope they take that path. There’s the other path. It is up to the Russians to determine which path they’re going to take and the consequences will be severe if they don’t take the diplomatic path,” she said.
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