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In crisis talks, U.S., Russian top diplomats trade demands on Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov move to their seats before their meeting in Geneva on Friday. (Alex Brandon/Pool/Associated Press)

GENEVA — The United States and Russia failed to resolve differences over Ukraine in a high-stakes meeting between top diplomats on Friday, as the Biden administration races to head off what American officials say could be an imminent Russian military assault.

Following their discussion in Geneva, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would hold further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after U.S. officials submit a written response, expected next week, to proposals that Russia has put forward on limiting the NATO alliance’s expansion and activities in Eastern Europe.

The impasse comes as Russia moves more troops and military equipment, including ballistic missile and air defense systems, to the border of Ukraine where 100,000 troops have been positioned.

While U.S. officials have dismissed many of Russia’s demands out of hand, an agreement to continue the diplomacy, for now at least, appeared to be a lone point of convergence in the 90-minute encounter, which capped hastily arranged visits by Blinken this week to Kyiv and Berlin to confer with Ukrainian and European leaders.

“We are doing everything possible to make clear to Russia that there will be, as I said, a swift, severe and united response to any form of aggression by Russia directed toward Ukraine,” Blinken told reporters after the talks.

Moscow, which has denied plans to invade Ukraine, has accused Kyiv of threatening Russian security by procuring foreign weaponry and aspiring to join NATO.

Biden administration stresses transatlantic unity on Ukraine

Lavrov described the talks as “useful and frank” but said it was too soon to say whether the two sides could resolve their differences.

“I cannot say whether we are on the right track or not on the right track,” he told reporters in a separate briefing. “We will understand this when we get the American response to all the points of our proposals on paper.”

The Biden administration has described many of the Russian demands, including a permanent exclusion from NATO for Ukraine and Georgia, as “nonstarters” that undercut the alliance’s “open door” policy and infringe on the sovereignty of countries to make their own decisions. Blinken said he laid out ideas for the Russian delegation on issues including arms control and military exercises, which he said could prove to be areas of compromise.

“We’ll see if that bears out,” he said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to prepare resolutely for both paths that we’ve laid out for Russia, the path of diplomacy and dialogue, or the path of renewed aggression, confrontation and consequences.”

The Biden administration and European allies have promised to impose far-reaching sanctions if Russia moves into Ukraine, including possible steps to cut off its access to the international financial system. Officials have portrayed the movement of Russian forces in Belarus this week, which Moscow has described as routine exercises, as another potential military front.

Lavrov, speaking after the meeting, again dismissed any plans for aggression against Ukraine.

“Today, I did not hear a single argument that would substantiate the American position on what is happening on the Russian-Ukrainian border, only concerns, concerns, concerns,” he said.

He urged the United States to make its written response to the Russian proposals public.

U.S. officials asked their Russian counterparts to keep the document secret, but a senior State Department official acknowledged that the Kremlin may decide to publish it after the United States sends it next week.

The Biden administration’s written response will include American security proposals and demonstrate Washington’s interest in continuing dialogue, said the State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

Although the written response will continue to fall short of Russia’s demands to close NATO’s open door policy, the official said, the Biden administration believes there is still value in providing a letter that can be read directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There‘s one decision-maker in Russia and it’s President Putin,” said a second Biden administration official. “If this then allows the ultimate decision-maker in Russia to looks at these ideas and decide whether to move forward, it’s in our interest.”

“We don’t want to be the ones who foreclose a potential diplomatic solution,” added the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

In visits to Kyiv and Berlin this week, Blinken described expanded conflict in Ukraine — where Russian-backed separatists are locked in a protracted struggle with government forces in the country’s east — as a threat to the global rule of law and a signal to autocrats that borders can be redrawn by force.

“It’s bigger than Russia and NATO,” he said. “It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action.”

While Blinken has stressed transatlantic unity, NATO allies continue to have differences over some aspects of the Ukraine crisis, including the role that European energy supplies from Russia should play in any response to Moscow’s action and how quickly, if at all, Ukraine should join NATO.

His message of coordinated deterrence was disrupted Wednesday when President Biden appeared to cast a Russian assault as inevitable and acknowledged a that “minor incursion” into Ukraine might create divisions within Europe on how forcefully to respond. The White House quickly deployed senior officials to clarify that any type of Russian incursion would result in massive consequences.

Biden’s remarks still triggered an icy response from Republican lawmakers and from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelensky posted on Twitter.

In his opening comments with Lavrov, Blinken also urged the release of two former U.S. Marines jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow and Hudson from Washington. Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.