Blinken handles warnings with Russia’s Lavrov over Ukraine, NATO

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Thursday that President Biden would “probably” speak directly with Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin “in the near future” as part of a frantic diplomatic effort to confront what Western officials feared. could be a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Blinken spoke to reporters in Stockholm on Thursday, shortly after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov on the sidelines of an annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Mr. Blinken said he communicated “clearly and directly” to Mr. Lavrov with US concerns about unusual troop movements and other threatening actions by Moscow that appear to portend a Russian invasion of its neighbor, a former Soviet republic whose independence and Western ties Mr. Putin is annoyed.

Mr Blinken warned that the United States would work with allies “to impose serious costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.” He said this “could be very drastic economic measures that we have not taken in the past”, but declined to provide more details.

Mr. Lavrov came with his own threats. Following Mr Putin’s recent warnings, Mr Lavrov said that “involving Ukraine in the geopolitical games of the United States against the background of the deployment of NATO troops in the immediate vicinity of our borders will have the most serious consequences will have,” said a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry after his meeting with Mr Blinken.

Mr Lavrov reiterated Mr Putin’s demand for “long-term security guarantees” at Russia’s western borders, which the Russian president defined on Wednesday as agreements that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance’s weapon systems will not be there. be established. Mr Lavrov said otherwise Russia was willing to “take retaliatory measures to correct the military-strategic balance,” the statement said.

While Russia is increasingly talking about threats from NATO, Mr Blinken has warned that Russia could devise a provocation to justify military action against Ukraine. On Thursday, he told reporters that “despite a massive Russian disinformation campaign, Ukraine does not pose a threat to Russia in any way.”

“The only threat is that of renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken said.

Neither Mr Blinken nor the White House have provided more details about a Biden-Putin meeting. Kremlin officials have suggested the possibility for days, but Mr. Blinken was the first clear indication from Washington that Mr. Biden took the idea seriously.

The two presidents first met in June in a similar state of alarm over a possible Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have long supported a pro-Moscow separatist insurgency. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 in a move the US still doesn’t recognize.

Russian troops partially withdrew shortly before Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin met in Geneva, leading some analysts to suggest that Mr. Putin had partially fabricated the crisis to secure a meeting with the new US president. .

Biden officials at the time said the summit’s goal was to a large extent to establish a more stable and predictable foothold in the Kremlin. But the relationship remains poisoned.

In brief comments to reporters before meeting Mr. Blinken in person, Mr. Lavrov also alluded to a tit-for-tat with the United States involving diplomatic personnel. On Wednesday, Russia ordered American diplomats who had been in Moscow for more than three years to fly out of the country by January 31 at the latest. The move came days after the Russian ambassador to Washington said 27 Russian diplomats and their families were being forced to leave the United States by the end of January.

In a daily briefing on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jalina Porter said Russian diplomats must leave the country under a policy that limits them to a three-year stay. “What is happening is not an expulsion,” she said, adding that new diplomats can take their place.

The US diplomatic presence in Russia has declined dramatically in recent years due to mounting tensions between Washington and Moscow. The State Department closed its last two consulates in Russia a year ago, citing a cap on diplomatic workers imposed by Moscow following a series of US sanctions in 2018.

Even while managing the crisis along Ukraine’s eastern border, Mr Blinken also led diplomacy regarding Iran’s nuclear program as a new round of talks in Vienna continued with little apparent progress. Talks are focused on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018.

Blinken made an unusual call on Thursday from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who told him Iran was engaged in “nuclear blackmail” and called for “an immediate halt to negotiations” in Vienna.

Mr Blinken downplayed the call, saying he and Mr Bennett had a positive talk and agreed on the goal of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

He added that Iran’s recent rhetoric and steps to accelerate its nuclear program “don’t give us much cause for optimism”, but said “it is not too late for Iran to change course”.

Anton Trojanovskic contributed reporting from Moscow.

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