Russia-Ukraine news: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Ukraine, Germany and Switzerland this week — a sign “maybe diplomacy isn’t dead,” a senior State Department official said Tuesday.

As Russia continues to amass troops and military hardware near Ukraine’s borders, now including in allied Belarus, there are growing fears in the United States and European countries that the Kremlin is preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine.

But Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Friday, keeping the door open for diplomacy.

“This is an extremely dangerous situation. We are now at a stage where Russia could launch an attack in Ukraine at any time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. lead Vladimir Putin can attack his neighbor.

Before sitting down with Lavrov, Blinken will meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba during his second visit to Kyiv as secretary – a week after CIA Director Bill Burns’ visit – and will travel to Berlin for a summit with his German, French and British counterparts.

Months of Russian troop build-ups and belligerent rhetoric led to a series of high-stakes diplomatic meetings last week. But one-on-one talks between the United States and Russia, a summit between NATO and Moscow and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ended without result.

Putin laid out his demands in two draft treaties last month, including that Ukraine not be able to join NATO and that the Western military alliance withdraw its troops from Eastern European member states. But for weeks, the United States and NATO have called out those non-starters, offering instead to negotiate on other issues like arms control or military exercises and threatening massive sanctions if Russia attacks the country. ‘Ukraine.

Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine, where its troops have led eastern forces in a war against the government for eight years and continue to occupy the Crimean peninsula. He warned that if his demands are not met, he will respond with “military technical” measures.

Rather than defusing tensions, the threat of conflict seems to be increasing, engineered by Russian movements. The Kremlin has started moving troops to Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor, for military exercises next month, including troops from its Far East, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on Tuesday, saying that the drills were intended to prepare Russian and Belarusian forces to “thwart and push back”. foreign aggression.”

“This is neither a drill nor a normal troop movement,” the senior State Department official told reporters. “It is a show of force designed to provoke or give a false pretext for a crisis as Russia plans a possible invasion.”

A second senior State Department official went further later Tuesday, questioning whether strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarusian government is really in charge and accusing the Kremlin of “preying” on its vulnerabilities with what troop deployment “of concern”.

“Over time, Lukashenka has increasingly relied on Russia for all kinds of support, and we know that Putin does not give that support for free. … There is no denying that after devoting his 27 years in power to claim to be the guarantor of the sovereignty and independence of Belarus, Lukashenko has increasingly shown that he will sacrifice everything to stay in power,” the senior official said.

The bold accusation appears to be a sign of deep US concern that Putin is making another power move here – this time to deepen his influence in Belarus.

But the US clearly sees this as a way for Moscow to more easily attack Ukraine as well – with Kiev hundreds of miles closer to Belarus’ borders than Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. The deployment gives “increased capability for Russia to launch this attack – increased opportunity, increased avenues, increased routes” against Ukraine, the second senior State Department official said.

Last Friday, the White House also said that the United States had intelligence that Russia had positioned agents trained in urban warfare and explosives for a possible “false flag” operation which could also be used as a pretext for a invasion – which the Kremlin denied was “complete”. disinformation.”

Blinken and Lavrov spoke on Tuesday and agreed to meet on Friday in Geneva, where the US and Russian delegations met last week. Their meeting will be another attempt to defuse tensions, but it’s unclear what new ground there is to walk.

“It is still too early to tell whether the Russian government is genuinely interested in diplomacy, whether it is prepared to negotiate seriously and in good faith, or whether it will use the talks as a pretext to claim that diplomacy has no not met Moscow’s interests. I just can’t judge that now, but I understand the desire on our side to test that hypothesis,” the first senior State Department official said.

Before heading to Switzerland, Blinken will be greeted by Zelenskiy in Kiev, days after a visit by a bipartisan delegation of US lawmakers who also pledged continued US support, including weapons.

“As we speak, additional US supplies are being sent to Ukraine to ensure they have what they need to fight back,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told ABC News.

Blinken’s visit follows that of CIA Director Burns last week, a senior US official confirmed to ABC News. Burns also met with Zelenskiy and his intelligence counterparts to discuss current risk assessments for Ukraine, the official said.

Between Kyiv and Geneva, Blinken will meet German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock for the second time this month, as Germany’s new government is critical of the strength of any potential sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion. Blinken and Baerbock will also meet their French and British counterparts in a show of diplomatic solidarity.

However, there had been signs of cracks in this unit, particularly on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The project would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and removing a key source of revenue for Kiev, who pressed the United States to sanction the German company building it. But Biden refused to do so, saying relations with Germany would suffer.

Amid intense international pressure, Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz indicated on Tuesday that he would be prepared to shut down the pipeline if Russia attacked Ukraine – another sign of the costs Moscow would face if it went ahead. before.

“If Russia launches an attack on a sovereign country that borders NATO countries, it is likely that NATO will dramatically increase its military activities, funding and even membership – all of which Russia claims to be trying to avoid. “said Mick Mulroy, former MP. retired CIA secretary of defense and paramilitary officer.

This could also include ending Nord Stream 2 and increasing US weaponry and training in Ukraine – Mulroy adding: “Russia could end up in a protracted counter-insurgency campaign in Ukraine, which ‘she will regret soon’.

ABC News’ Patrick Reevell contributed reporting from Kyiv and Cindy Smith from Washington.

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Christi C. Elwood