Top US and Russian diplomats have agreed to keep talking amid the stand-off over Ukraine, despite a summit in Switzerland producing no movement on the crisis.
There are fears that Russia will invade Ukraine after Moscow massed tens of thousands of troops at the border, while the west has ramped up supplies of weapons to Kyiv.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met for about 90 minutes in Geneva at what the American diplomat said was a “critical moment”.
The first shipment of assistance recently directed by President Biden to Ukraine arrived in Ukraine tonight. This shipment includes close to
200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the front line defenders of Ukraine. [1/2] pic.twitter.com/YeYanK0Px6
— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) January 22, 2022
Expectations had been low going in, and there was no breakthrough.
Mr Blinken told Mr Lavrov the US would give Russia written responses to Moscow’s proposals next week, and suggested the two would likely meet again shortly after that – offering some hope that any invasion would be delayed for at least a few more days.
The US secretary of state said America and its allies remain resolute in rejecting Russia’s most important demands, which were reiterated on Friday.
Moscow wants Nato to promise that Ukraine will never be added as a member, that no alliance weapons will be deployed near Russian borders, and that it should pull back its forces from central and eastern Europe.
The United States and its allies and partners are standing together to expedite security assistance to Ukraine. We are utilizing all available security cooperation tools to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of Russian aggression.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 22, 2022
Despite that, there was no indication the US responses would be any different from the flat-out rejections already expressed by Washington and its allies, clouding future diplomatic efforts.
“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clearer path to understanding each other’s positions,” Mr Blinken said after the meeting.
He said he also wanted to use the opportunity to share directly with Mr Lavrov some “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns that you have raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about Russia’s actions”.
Mr Blinken said Mr Lavrov repeated Russia’s insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, but the US and its allies remain unconvinced.
He said: “We’re looking at what is visible to all, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference.”
Mr Blinken added that Russia should remove its troops from the Ukrainian border if it wanted to prove its point.
Mr Lavrov, meanwhile, called the talks “constructive and useful” but declined to characterise the US pledge.
“I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not,” he told reporters. “We will understand that when we receive the US written response to all of our proposals.”
Mr Blinken suggested there was no leeway on Russia’s demands, saying firmly: “There is no trade space there. None.”
The US and its allies say Russian president Vladimir Putin knows his demands are non-starters, adding that they are open to less dramatic moves.
Mr Blinken said the US would be open to a meeting between Mr Putin and US president Joe Biden, if it would be “useful and productive”.
The two have met once in person in Geneva and have had several virtual conversations on Ukraine that have proven largely inconclusive.
💬 FM Sergey #Lavrov during talks with @SecBlinken:
In a recent statement you said that you were not expecting a breakthrough from this meeting.
☝️ We are not expecting a breakthrough either. What we are expecting are replies to our proposals.
🔗 https://t.co/KRJ7PgpqH0 pic.twitter.com/40hkT1lNj2
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) January 21, 2022
An estimated 100,000 Russian troops have been sent to areas near Ukraine, and more are moving into the area for training exercises with neighbouring Belarus.
Late on Friday, the US embassy in Kyiv tweeted photos of a shipment it said had just arrived from the America, with “close to 200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the front line defenders of Ukraine”.
Western allies are also supplying weaponry and equipment to Ukraine. The UK sent anti-tank missiles earlier this week, while the defence ministers of the Baltic nations issued a statement saying they received US approval to send Stinger air defence missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles to strengthen Kyiv’s defences.
Estonian defence minister Kalle Laanet said: “Today, Ukraine is at the forefront of separating Europe from the military conflict with Russia.
“Let´s face it – the war in Ukraine is ongoing and it is important to support Ukraine in every way we can so that they can resist the aggressor.”
The Pentagon said the USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier and its strike group will participate in a Nato maritime exercise in the Mediterranean, which will continue through until February 4 – something that had been planned since 2020, said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
He said officials considered whether to carry on with the exercise because of the ongoing tensions, and decided to move ahead.
Mr Kirby said the exercise was not planned anticipating a Russian move on Ukraine and is “not designed against any of the kinds of scenarios that might happen with respect to Ukraine”.
On Thursday, Russia announced sweeping naval manoeuvres through February, some apparently in the Black Sea.
The US and its allies scrambled to present a united front. Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised consequences such as biting economic sanctions against Russia – though not military action – if it invades.
Mr Blinken backed up that stance on Friday, saying the US and its allies are committed to diplomacy but also committed “if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to pursue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe response”.