GENEVA -- The United States and Russia sought to lower the temperature in a heated standoff over Ukraine, even as they reported no breakthroughs in high-stakes talks on Friday aimed at preventing a feared Russian invasion.
Armed with seemingly intractable and diametrically opposed demands, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva for roughly 90 minutes at what the American said was a “critical moment.”
But there was no apparent movement on either side. Blinken said the U.S. and its allies remain resolute in rejecting Russia’s most important demands, which were laid out in writing in two proposals last month, and reiterated on Friday. Moscow wants NATO to promise that Ukraine will never be added as a member, that no alliance weapons will be deployed near Russian borders, and that it pull back its forces from Central and Eastern Europe.
Blinken told Lavrov the U.S. would give Russia written responses to Moscow's proposals next week and suggested the two would likely meet again shortly after that — possibly delaying any invasion for at least a few more days.
Despite that, there was no indication the U.S. responses would be any different from the flat-out rejections already expressed publicly by Washington and its allies, clouding future diplomatic efforts.
With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine, many fear Moscow is preparing an invasion although Russia denies that. The U.S. and its allies are scrambling to present a united front to prevent that or coordinate a tough response if they can’t.
“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,” Blinken said after the meeting.
Blinken said Lavrov repeated Russia's insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, but the U.S. and its allies were not convinced.
“We’re looking at what is visible to all, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference,” he said, adding that Russia should remove its troops from the Ukrainian border if it wanted to prove its point.
Lavrov, meanwhile, called the talks “constructive and useful” but declined to characterize the U.S. pledge.
“I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not," he told reporters. "We will understand that when we receive the U.S. written response to all of our proposals.”
Blinken suggested there was no leeway on Russia’s demands, saying firmly: “There is no trade space there: None.”
The U.S. and its allies say Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the demands are nonstarters, adding that they're open to less-dramatic moves.
Blinken said the U.S. would be open to a meeting between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden, if it would be “useful and productive.” The two have met once in person in Geneva and have had several virtual conversations on Ukraine that have proven largely inconclusive.
Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised consequences such as biting economic sanctions against Russia — though not military action — if it invades. Blinken repeated that Friday, saying the U.S. and its allies were committed to diplomacy but also committed "if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to pursue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe response."
But he said he also wanted to use the opportunity to share directly with Lavrov some “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns that you have raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about Russia’s actions.”
Amid the diplomacy, more Russian troops were moving into the neighborhood for training exercises with neighboring Belarus, while Western allies were supplying weaponry and equipment to Ukraine.
“No one is hiding the fact that weapons are being handed over to Ukraine; that hundreds of military instructors are flocking to Ukraine right now,” Lavrov said. Russia has accused the West of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing weapons deliveries there by Britain.
In other diplomatic moves, President Sauli Niinistö of Finland said he spoke with Putin by phone on European security and Ukraine, saying it was “imperative to preserve peace in Europe,” according to his office.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of NATO member Turkey, which touted its strong ties with Russia and Ukraine, renewed an offer to mediate between the two countries. Erdogan said he plans to visit Kyiv next month, adding that he would also hold talks with Putin.
Ukraine is already beset by conflict. Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, part of a simmering but largely stalemated conflict that has killed 14,000. Putin faced limited international consequences for those moves, but the West says a new invasion would be different.
Blinken met Ukraine’s president in Kyiv and top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin this week.
Blinken has taken pains to stress U.S. unity with its allies, something that took an apparent hit Wednesday when Biden drew widespread criticism for saying retaliation for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details and that a “minor incursion” could prompt discord among Western allies.
On Thursday, Biden sought to clarify his comments by cautioning that any Russian troop movements across Ukraine’s border would constitute an invasion and that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” for such an action.
“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Biden said. “He has no misunderstanding: Any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
Adding to its warnings, Washington stepped up sanctions Thursday by slapping new measures on four Ukrainian officials who Blinken said were at the center of a Kremlin effort begun in 2020 to damage Kyiv's ability to “independently function.”
The State Department issued three statements Thursday – two on Russian “disinformation,” including one specifically on Ukraine, and another titled “Taking Action to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilization Campaign in Ukraine.” The documents accused Putin of trying to reconstitute the former Soviet Union through intimidation and force.
The Russian Foreign Ministry mocked those statements, saying they must have been prepared by an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth,” and Lavrov caustically dismissed them. “I do hope that not everyone in the State Department was working on those materials and there were some who were working on the essence of our proposals and their substance," he said.
Lavrov rejected claims that Russia wants to carve out a sphere of interests, countering that the West has sought to expand its influence and that "NATO sees Ukraine as part of its zone of influence.”
The United States and allies say countries like Ukraine are entitled to their own alliances as part of sovereign security measures, but Lavrov countered that Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have also agreed that no nation can ensure its security by undermining security of others.
In eastern Ukraine, a soldier stationed near the front line with Russia-backed separatists called Blinken’s visit to Kyiv “very important for our country.” The soldier, who identified himself only by his first name, Serhiy, in line with official rules, voiced hope that if Russia attacked, “we can count on our forces’ and our allies’ power."
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed.