The U.S. and Russia are moving ahead with their diplomatic engagements over Russia menacing Ukraine, according to senior State Department officials, after the two countries' top diplomats spoke Tuesday.
But as talks continue, there have been no results yet -- with more than 100,000 Russian troops still massed on Ukraine's borders, including increasingly in its northern neighbor Belarus.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin said the U.S. has "ignored" Russia's key demands that NATO bar Ukraine from joining and pull back allied troops from Eastern European countries -- his first comments on the crisis in over a month.
But his government is still analyzing the U.S. response to Russia, laid out in a formal proposal hand-delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Moscow last week, he said.
During a critical call Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "did agree that the ideas on both sides that have been exchanged did form the basis for the potential for serious discussion on a range of issues," said a senior State Department official.
Those ideas include issues like arms control and greater transparency in military exercises, they added, expressing some hope that Russia's continued engagement could lay the groundwork for real negotiations.
But for now, Russia is still formulating its response to those U.S. ideas, Lavrov said he told Blinken, calling those issues "important in their own way, but secondary" to Russia's key demands.
Putin dug into NATO on Tuesday during a press conference with Viktor Orbán, the autocratic prime minister of NATO member Hungary.
"We have been promised by NATO that it will not advance its infrastructure one inch further eastwards. Everybody knows that. Today, we see where NATO is -- Poland, Romania, the Baltic States. They said one thing and did another thing. As the people say, they played us -- simply lied. OK, that's fine," the Russian leader said.
U.S. officials have said that the U.S. and NATO never made promises not to expand eastward and that joining the Western military alliance is the decision of any individual country and NATO. But Putin for years has decried the alliance as threatening Moscow, even as Russia has invaded Ukraine and Georgia, illegitimately stationed troops in Moldova and conducted cyberattacks against the U.S., United Kingdom and others.
He also accused Ukraine, "fully packed of weapons," of seeking to join NATO to start a conflict with Russia over Crimea with NATO's backing. Crimea is the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia seized in 2014 -- a land grab the international community has not recognized -- as Russian forces fomented a conflict in Ukraine's eastern provinces known as Donbas.
That's exactly the pretext for a renewed Russian attack on Ukraine that U.S. officials have said they're concerned Moscow is preparing.
The heightened rhetoric from Putin was largely dismissed by the Biden administration Tuesday, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price saying, "I will leave it to the Kremlinologists out there -- budding professional, amateur, or otherwise -- to read the tea leaves and try to interpret the significance of those remarks. For our part, we don't necessarily need to do that because we know that a formal response from the Russian Federation is forthcoming."
When that response is finalized, it will be sent to Putin for approval and then set to the U.S., the senior State Department officials said, and after that, Blinken and Lavrov plan to speak again.
Pressed on whether the Russians may be buying time or stalling before a renewed attack on Ukraine, a second senior State Department official said, "Because we don't President Putin has made a decision [on whether to further invade Ukraine], we think it's important to keep the diplomatic option on the table -- so to the extent that Russia wants to engage in that diplomatic track, we are also open to having that continued diplomatic engagement."
Blinken and Lavrov didn't agree on when or how those talks would continue, but the U.S. has called for them to include one-on-one meetings, as well as negotiations between NATO and Russia and dialogue at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Cold War-era forum that includes the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine.
On Monday, Moscow sent the U.S., as well as all OSCE members and several NATO allies, a similar letter seeking clarification about security principles enshrined in one of the OSCE's key documents, the Helsinki Final Act, according to U.S. and Russian officials. The letter was not Russia's response to the U.S. proposal, but seems to be part of its effort to formulate one.
"NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you can not strengthen someone's security at the expense of others," Putin said Tuesday during his press conference.
"This is a topic that we will not allow to be covered up. We will insist on a frank conversation and a frank explanation as to why the West doesn't want to fulfill its obligations or it wants to fulfil them selectively in its own favor," Lavrov added during an appearance after his call with Blinken.
The U.S. has previously made clear it believes that Ukraine has a right to choose its own alliances and that the smaller, democratic country poses no threat to Russia's security.
As the U.S. and NATO wait for that formal Russian response, Blinken again urged Russia to deescalate tensions by pulling back troops, heavy weaponry, and equipment from Ukraine's borders. But Lavrov gave no indication during the call that Russia would do so, the senior State Department officials said.
"All of the actions that we are seeing on the ground do not suggest escalation. We continue to see in fact more Russian troops coming not only to Russia's border with Ukraine, but as you know, also to Belarus for these supposed exercises," the second senior State Department official said.
Russia and Belarus have said those forces are preparing for military exercises to improve their readiness. But the U.S. said Monday it has evidence that more than 30,000 Russian troops will mass in Belarus in the coming days, citing declassified U.S. intelligence -- a concerning move that puts them within two hours of Ukraine's capital Kyiv.