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Stakes rise over Ukraine, US will reply to Russian demands

Ukrainian soldiers held the line at their country's border this week as talks between Russia and the United States, Ukraine's ally in the region, continued.Brendan Hoffman/Getty

GENEVA — The United States and Russia agreed Friday to keep diplomacy alive in their standoff over Ukraine, even as both sides continued to raise the military stakes on the ground.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a hastily scheduled meeting in Geneva that the United States would provide written responses next week to Russia’s demands that the West scale back its military presence in Eastern Europe.

Both sides said that the diplomats planned to speak again after that, and they left the door open to another conversation between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin to try to resolve the crisis.

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But, in and around Ukraine, tensions continued to rise. Russia has been ferrying more troops, armor, and advanced anti-aircraft systems toward Belarus, a Russian ally and Ukraine’s northern neighbor, putting a growing force within range of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, for what Russia insisted were merely exercises.

And the United States has authorized Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to send Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian forces, augmenting the Javelin anti-tank missile deliveries to Ukraine that Britain began this month. The State Department also confirmed this week that the Biden administration approved an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine, on top of $450 million in the past fiscal year.

“The president will head this weekend to Camp David with his national security team to discuss the situation — some will be virtual; some will be there in person,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington. “We will also continue to consult with our allies and partners, and we will respond next week in writing.”

Still, after weeks of heated rhetoric, there were signs that both sides were trying to keep tensions in check and give diplomacy time to play out. Their agreement Friday to keep negotiating draws out a run of talks that started Dec. 30 with a phone call between Putin and Biden, and continued with a series of three meetings last week that provided no breakthroughs but prevented Russia from portraying the use of force as its only option.

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It is unclear who might benefit more from a delay, if Russia remains poised to invade Ukraine — a decision US officials believe Putin has not yet made, despite massing more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. Biden said this week that he thought Putin would attempt to “test the West” by launching an invasion, a prediction that went well beyond the formal intelligence assessments described by White House officials.

The US might welcome more time to rally and coordinate allies and plan contingency options. But the Russians may value the appearance of an extended, good-faith diplomatic effort before any potential invasion and may welcome time to mobilize more troops.

The 90-minute meeting in Geneva on Friday came at the end of a whirlwind trip to Europe for Blinken, who stopped in Kyiv and Berlin this week. Lavrov described the talks as “a useful, honest discussion,” while Blinken called them “direct, businesslike” and “not polemical.”

Russia’s demands include a legally binding halt to NATO’s eastward expansion and a withdrawal of NATO troops from countries like Poland and Baltic nations that used to be aligned with or part of the Soviet Union. The United States has dismissed those demands as nonstarters, even as US officials offered talks on other matters, such as military exercises and the placement of missiles.

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“We anticipate that we will be able to share with Russia our concerns and ideas in more detail and in writing next week,” Blinken said. “We didn’t expect any breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clearer path in terms of understanding each other’s concerns.”

Lavrov, addressing the news media separately after the meeting, repeated Russia’s denials that it had any plans to attack Ukraine and said Russia would wait for the United States’ written response next week before deciding on next steps. Putin has warned that Russia would take unspecified “military-technical” actions to ensure its security if the West did not agree to its demands.

“I can’t say whether or not we are on the right path,” Lavrov said. “We will understand this when we get the American response on paper to all the points in our proposals.”