USA secretary of state Tony Blinken to meet with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov amid fears of Russian attack on Ukraine.
The US and Russian foreign ministers will hold talks in Geneva on Friday in a development that a US official said suggested that “perhaps diplomacy is not dead” in the efforts to fend off a new Russian attack on Ukraine.
With the White House warning that such an attack could come “at any time”, the US secretary of state, Tony Blinken, will fly to Kyiv on Wednesday and Berlin on Thursday to consult with the Ukrainian government and European allies before the meeting the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. It comes as NATO also offered Russia a fresh round of talks.
“The fact that Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed to meet on Friday in Geneva suggests that perhaps diplomacy is not dead,” a senior state department official said. “We will certainly know a lot more after that engagement on Friday.”
At the end of last week, after three sets of discussions in Europe that produced no progress, a senior Russian official suggested that diplomacy could be at a dead-end. Since then tensions have continued to rise, with movements of Russian troops and heavy weapons westwards from the far east, and into Belarus.
“We’re now at a stage where Russia at any time could launch an attack on Ukraine,” said the White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki.
NATO was not notified of the Russian military exercises in Belarus, a US official said, noting that the troops were in “numbers beyond what we’d expect in regard to a normal exercise”.
“What it represents is an increased capability for Russia to launch this attack – increased opportunity, increased avenues, increased routes,” the official said, questioning how much control Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko – weakened by popular opposition to his rule – had over events.
“The question is: Where do their authorities at this point end and where do the Kremlin’s begin? And that is very uncertain.”
“Russian military plans to begin activities several weeks before a military invasion is something we’ve been watching closely and our assessment has been that could happen anytime between mid-January and mid-February,” a senior state department official said.
On Tuesday, the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, echoed US claims that there was a “significant Russian presence of intelligence operatives inside Ukraine” and that it was “absolutely possible” they were planning “incidents, accidents, false flag operations”.
NATO has invited Russia to a fresh series of talks to discuss European security and arms controls as the alliance scrambles to avoid a possible Russian attack on Ukraine.
“The main task now is to prevent a military attack on Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said after a meeting with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
“We are willing to listen to their concerns but we will not compromise on core principles. We must remain clear-eyed about the prospects of progress but … will make every effort to reach an agreement.”
A senior European official confirmed that the coming month is seen as the most likely time for a Russian offensive, if Vladimir Putin takes the decision to attack.
“We all have the same assessment because it’s thought that the ground will be too muddy after mid-February,” the official said. “For a highly capable army, winter is actually very helpful.”
Blinken will meet Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and other senior officials in Kyiv on Wednesday. In Berlin, the secretary of state will meet with members of the new German coalition government as well as representatives of the “trans-Atlantic quad”, which also includes the UK and France. Those talks will be focused on preparing for the Lavrov meeting and working on a concerted response to any Russian attack.