The US and Russia traded threats of “serious consequences” should either side escalate tensions on the Ukrainian border following weeks of rising concerns in the west that a Russian build-up of military activity could spill over into war.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday for the first time since Washington warned its allies that the Russian troop surge suggested Moscow was preparing another invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has said it has no plans to attack and was “a threat to no one.”
Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 after a western-backed revolution in Kyiv and has since supported a separatist war in the country’s eastern region of Donbas by providing weapons and equipment to separatists, according to western officials. Moscow has denied involvement in the Donbas conflict, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
The US warning of more Russian aggression against Ukraine has become a flashpoint in strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
At closed-door talks in Stockholm, Blinken said that if Russia “decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences,” reiterating that Washington had “deep concerns about Russia’s plan for renewed aggression against Ukraine.”
In response, Lavrov warned that Moscow would respond with “retaliatory measures to redress the military-strategic balance” if western military support for Ukraine continued to rise.
“Ignoring Russia’s legitimate concerns and dragging Ukraine into US geopolitical games against the background of the deployment of Nato forces in proximity to our borders will have the most serious consequences,” Lavrov said in a statement after the talks, which took place on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Russia would offer a plan for a new European security pact to focus on preventing Nato encroachment east, he said.
Lavrov said western arms shipments to Ukraine were encouraging Kyiv to escalate in the Donbas.
Ukraine tensions have dominated the Stockholm meeting and the bilateral ministerial meetings on its sidelines, with Nato member states seeking to underline their support for Kyiv and the range of potential responses, including possible sanctions, if Russia were to attack.
US defence officials have prepared a package of options to provide “lethal aid” to Ukraine, but the Biden administration has yet to make an announcement of additional support. Blinken warned this week that Nato was “prepared to reinforce its defences on the eastern flank”.
“The Ukrainians may not win but they can make the Russians fight a land war, and that’s a big deal,” said Daniel Fried, former senior state department official who covered Russia and Ukraine, adding there would likely be significant casualties in such a scenario.
At a dinner on Wednesday evening ahead of formal start of the OSCE talks, Blinken and Lavrov exchanged heated remarks over the situation in and around Ukraine as the more than 50 other delegates looked on, according to people briefed on the conversation.
Their official meeting on Thursday ended on time after 30 minutes, Bloomberg reported. Blinken described the talks as a candid and direct exchange of views, adding that it was now up to Russia to de-escalate tensions.
Blinken met with Dmytro Kuleba, Kyiv’s foreign minister, on Thursday. The US has “a strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.
Ukraine is seeking a comprehensive deterrence package, Kuleba wrote on Twitter after the meeting, “to demotivate Russia from further aggressive moves.”
Russia president Vladimir Putin this week warned the west against crossing Moscow’s “red lines” in Ukraine, saying it would be forced to respond “if Nato continued to expand its infrastructure”, including through the alliance’s potential deployment of its own similar missile systems.
Blinken and Lavrov also discussed Iran. “There was a ‘synchronisation of watches’ on the situation around the Iranian nuclear programme,” Lavrov said after the talks.