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Blinken says U.S. will stand with Ukraine if Russia attacks

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before their meeting Jan. 19 in Kyiv. (Alex Brandon/Pool/Reuters)

KYIV, Ukraine — The United States will stand by Ukraine against mounting Russian pressure, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told officials in Kyiv on Wednesday, as the Biden administration redoubles its efforts to avert a military attack.

The top U.S. diplomat promised continued American support, including the prospect of increased military hardware in the event of a Russian assault during a hastily arranged visit that underscored spiraling concerns in Western nations that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to use force to reassert Moscow’s dominance in the former Soviet sphere.

“Now as ever, it is up to Ukrainians and no one else to decide their own future, and the future of this country,” Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before a bilateral meeting.

The discussions in Kyiv, the first in a series of European crisis talks that will also include a meeting Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, come amid what U.S. officials have described as a growing list of destabilizing actions by Russia. Those include what officials say are potential “false flag” operations in eastern Ukraine, live-fire exercises near the Ukraine-Russia border and, this week, the movement of Russian troops into Ukraine’s pro-Moscow neighbor, Belarus.

Here’s what you need to know about Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine

The Kremlin, which sent troops into Ukraine to seize Crimea in 2014, has denied any plans for another invasion and instead accused NATO of threatening its security by expanding to the east.

The Biden administration in recent days has added urgency to its warnings about Russia’s military plans, as officials cautioned ahead of Blinken’s departure that an attack could come “at any time.” On Wednesday, Blinken said that Moscow could double its force of about 100,000 troops deployed around Ukraine in “relatively short order.”

But Blinken also described a larger threat, telling U.S. Embassy employees that the implications of Russia’s actions were “bigger than Ukraine,” challenging global principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“If we allow those principles to be violated with impunity, then we will open a very large Pandora’s box,” Blinken said. “The entire world is watching what is happening here.”

To help Ukraine defend itself, the Biden administration is providing the country with an additional $200 million in military assistance, including Javelin missiles, anti-armor artillery and heavy machine guns. While the United States has so far declined to provide air defense systems and more significant offensive weapons, Blinken said more arms would be approved if Russian troops roll across the border.

“Should Russia carry through with any aggressive intent and renew its aggression and invade Ukraine, we’ll provide additional material beyond [what] is already in the pipeline,” he said in remarks to the news media alongside Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. He provided no details about what kind of weaponry that might include.

Ukrainian officials in turn described the United States as a key security partner. “I am grateful to the U.S. for standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine at this time and working together on the comprehensive deterrence package,” Kuleba said.

Blinken’s trip to Europe this week will culminate with his meeting with Lavrov in Geneva, an encounter that U.S. officials suggested might indicate an openness among Russian leaders to a peaceful resolution of the standoff.

But ahead of the talks, Russian officials have continued to blame the West for stoking fears about further conflict in Ukraine.

“We see weapons shipments there; we see various maneuvers; we see NATO and Western European countries flying over,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow. “This all just leads to tension around Ukraine.”

While Moscow in recent weeks has put forward proposals to impose formal limits to NATO’s eastward enlargement and alliance activities in Eastern Europe, European and U.S. officials have dismissed those ideas, saying NATO’s “open door” to potential members, including Ukraine, cannot be altered.

Washington instead has proposed measures on arms control and military exercises, which so far appear to have gained little traction on the Russian side.

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Peskov, like other Russian officials, said that Russia would require written U.S. answers to Russian proposals to move the diplomacy ahead, something he said he hoped would occur in the next few days.

But Blinken suggested that the United States was not ready for such a step.

“I won’t be presenting a paper at that time to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Blinken said. “We need to see where we are and see if there remain opportunities to pursue the diplomacy and pursue the dialogue, which again, as I said, is by far the preferable course.”

In a sign of the quick pace of events, Blinken’s meeting with Lavrov was announced on Tuesday just hours before his departure from Washington, only after his travel to Ukraine and a subsequent stop in Germany were made public.

Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested that Washington should unilaterally agree to refrain from voting to eventually admit Ukraine into NATO — a step he said would be easier than securing agreement from all 30 NATO members.

He said that Russia could not wait indefinitely for a resolution to its security demands and said the ball was “on Washington’s side.”

Asked whether he saw room for compromise on Russia’s demand to limit NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, Blinken said that some of the demands were “absolute nonstarters.”

“So again, I think through these conversations that we’ve already had, it’s a way of refining what’s really at the heart of this, and seeing if there are grounds for dealing with those,” he said.

While the Biden administration and European partners have promised to apply severe economic pressure, including sanctions and potential steps to exclude Russia from the global financial system, former officials and experts doubt that will significantly influence Putin’s decisions.

U.S. officials say they also fear that Russia could increase its use of methods short of outright invasion to further destabilize Ukraine, including what they allege are disinformation and digital warfare activities. On Friday, a significant cyberattack disrupted Ukrainian government websites. Russian-backed separatists have also been fighting Ukraine’s forces in its eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014.

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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