The US and Russian foreign ministers ended the highest-level talks yet on Moscow’s security demands over Ukraine by agreeing to continue diplomacy, in comments suggesting the meeting had created a small window for detente amid heightened risks of a conflict at the heart of Europe.
The meeting between Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday was the latest diplomatic initiative designed to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine again.
It came as Moscow clarified on Friday that it wants Nato to remove all its forces from Bulgaria, Romania and other ex-communist states in eastern Europe that joined the alliance after 1997 — a move deemed unacceptable by the transatlantic alliance.
Blinken said Washington planned to share written security proposals with Russia next week, adding the meeting had put the two countries on a “clearer path” to understanding each other’s concerns. President Joe Biden was “fully prepared” to hold a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin if there was a belief that such a conversation would help find a breakthrough, he added.
Lavrov “now has a better idea of our position and vice versa . . . and that’s precisely why we met”, Blinken told reporters after the talks, adding that both men “agreed it is important for the diplomatic process to continue”.
Lavrov said Putin “was always prepared” to talk to Biden but said future talks would depend on “serious preparation”. The meeting with Blinken, which followed three rounds of lower-level negotiations Moscow deemed a failure last week, were “candid” and “useful” ahead of an expected written US response to Russia’s demands, he added.
Russian state newswire RIA Novosti shortly after cited a foreign ministry source as saying Lavrov and Blinken might meet again next month after the US responds to Moscow’s security proposals.
Western officials say Putin is closer than ever to a renewed invasion of Ukraine after amassing more than 106,000 troops close to its border in recent weeks. In Ukraine’s eastern Donbas border region, more than 14,000 people have died since 2014 in a slow-burning separatist war spearheaded by Moscow. Putin has vowed an unspecified “military-technical response” if the west does not agree to Russia’s draft security proposals.
Lavrov on Friday dismissed warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine as “hysteria” and accused the west of encouraging Kyiv to “completely sabotage” a long-stalled peace agreement in Donbas.
The US has sought to de-escalate tensions while warning of “crippling” sanctions in case of any Russian aggression against Ukraine. But western unity frayed this week after Biden suggested a western response would depend on the scale of Russia’s intervention and French president Emmanuel Macron proposed separate European-led security talks with Moscow.
Biden later clarified his comments by saying that Russia would “pay a heavy price” in the event of any incursion, while French officials insisted the French leader’s offer was not intended to undermine US-led negotiations.
“I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not,” Lavrov said. “We will understand that when we receive a written response to all of our proposals.”
The US and its European allies have said Russia’s demands that Nato pledge never to admit Ukraine and to roll back the alliance’s eastward expansion — which would essentially rewrite the post-cold war security order — are unacceptable.
Speaking in parliament on Friday Bulgaria’s prime minister, Kiril Petkov, said: “Bulgaria is a sovereign country, which has made its choice long ago by becoming a Nato member. As such, we alone decide [how] to organise the defence of our country in co-ordination with our partners.”
Lavrov’s statement on Nato deployments in eastern Europe was an apparent rejoinder to Macron, who said on Wednesday that Paris was ready to send troops to Romania if Nato decided to beef up its presence there.
Nato members are discussing troop deployments in the Black Sea region under its “enhanced forward presence” missions, akin to those in Poland and the Baltic states following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Additional reporting by Ben Hall in London and Marton Dunai in Budapest