Blinken says talks with Russia over Ukraine crisis must be a ‘two-way street’ to be successful

Speaking following a meeting with NATO foreign ministers on Friday, Blinken reaffirmed that the United States and its allies were ready to address any “legitimate concerns” Russia had about the NATO actions if Russia reciprocates.

But Blinken accused Russia of trying to “drag us into a NATO debate” to distract from the build-up of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.

“Moscow simultaneously conveys the false narrative that NATO is threatening Russia, that NATO plans to station military infrastructure in Ukraine to spark a conflict with Russia, which NATO swore after the Cold War not to admit Eastern European countries and that NATO has broken those promises, ”Blinken told a press conference at the State Department. “Each of these claims is false.”

Blinken also said that the idea of ​​Ukraine as an aggressor – which Russia has pushed – is “absurd”.

Blinken said Russia currently has “nearly 100,000 troops today” built “on the border with Ukraine” and “intends to mobilize double that number in the very short term.”

The NATO foreign ministers meeting on Friday provided an opportunity for the United States and its allies to coordinate and demonstrate unified opposition to Russian aggression against Ukraine ahead of what is expected to be a week of intense diplomacy, explained a US official and two European officials.

A second US official explained that the chain of diplomacy with Russia next week – with US-Russian talks first, NATO talks with Russia second, and the Organization’s talks for the Security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with Russia last – was very deliberate. . The order of events will allow Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who is leading bilateral talks for the US side, to take the temperature of the Russian approach earlier this week and brief allies on what has been shared in those initial conversations so they can work out a game plan together.

As US and EU officials continue to argue that Russia cannot be rewarded for its military build-up – and that the country must defuse the situation with Ukraine before anything else can happen – they recognize also privately that Russia will need an exit ramp, US and EU officials have told CNN.

But creating an offramp is tricky, officials said, because it will have to be something Russia can announce at home as a victory, but also something that doesn’t actually reward Russia. One area to watch is the possibility of the United States moving heavy weapons it has in Poland further west, given Russian sensitivities regarding its borders, an EU official said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who also spoke on Friday after the NATO meeting, said the alliance welcomed Russia’s willingness to “sit down at the table and speak “but was prepared for” the possibility of diplomacy failing “.

Blinken reiterated on Friday that the United States was prepared to inflict “massive consequences”, including further economic measures, if Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border continues. Officials in the Biden administration, however, are still weighs how the United States would penalize Russia if it invaded Ukraine.

A report on Friday that the United States was making plans to shift its position of strength in Eastern Europe if Russia stopped its aggression against Ukraine alarmed the Baltic states, which began contacting U.S. officials to ask them how bad it was, two U.S. officials told CNN. .

The Biden administration strongly rejected the report. “It is not correct that the administration is developing options to withdraw US forces in Eastern Europe for talks with Russia next week,” state spokesman Ned Price said. . tweeted.

The unrest in Kazakhstan

Next week’s talks take place against a backdrop of unrest in Kazakhstan, where the country’s leader – with the help of Russian forces – cracked down on protests that have turned violent.

The situation has the potential to complicate upcoming talks, although so far White House officials have said violence in Kazakhstan will not delay or otherwise alter the three rounds of talks set to begin in Geneva on Monday.

Blinken said on Friday the United States remained “very concerned about the ongoing state of emergency” in Kazakhstan and had questions over the country’s request for collective security Treaty Organization peacekeepers. , an alliance of former Soviet states that includes Russia.

“It seems to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to handle protests appropriately, to do so in a way that respects the rights of protesters while maintaining public order,” Blinken said. “So it’s not clear why they feel the need for outside help.”

Blinken said he hoped the Kazakh government would tackle “fundamentally economic and political” issues that he said led to the protests.

His remarks come after the Russian government said Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation in Kazakhstan with CSTO leaders following the arrival of Russian CSTO forces in Kazakhstan.

Blinken said the United States does not confuse what is happening in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, although he added: “A lesson from recent history is that once the Russians are in your house, it sometimes it’s very difficult to get them to leave. “

This story was updated with additional details on Friday.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

Christi C. Elwood