Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine, meet Russian counterpart as US-Russia tensions escalate

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WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his Russian counterpart on Friday as the Biden administration ramps up its diplomatic efforts to head off a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A senior State Department official confirmed Blinken's sit-down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, scheduled to take place in Geneva after the chief U.S. diplomat travels to Ukraine and Germany to rally American allies against Moscow's aggression.

Blinken’s trip comes after lower-level talks with Russian and European officials last week failed to produce a breakthrough. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine and threatened to escalate conflict with its neighbor unless the U.S. and its European allies make a series of security guarantees to Moscow.

Though the Biden administration still believes a diplomatic solution is possible, the administration is preparing for conflict, the senior official said.

On Wednesday, Blinken will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba “to reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

Learn more: What's happening in Ukraine? Russian troops at border raise new invasion fear

Blinken will meet with his German counterpart, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, in Berlin on Thursday. The secretary also will meet with members of the Transatlantic Quad, including Australia, India and Japan, the State Department said.

Blinken's meetings come after a week of intense negotiations between the U.S., NATO allies and Russia over the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as Russia's broader disagreements over the security structure of post-Cold War Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded a withdrawal of NATO forces from all of Eastern Europe and a pledge to bar Ukraine from joining the military alliance.

American and NATO officials have rejected Putin's demands and called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the Ukraine border.

The saber-rattling comes after a similar military buildup in April 2021, when American and European negotiators met with Russian officials to defuse a potential conflict. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and has since supported a separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country.

More: Biden, Democrats call for sanctions on Putin, other top Russian officials if Kremlin invades Ukraine

Russia wants its demands met; NATO allies push back

On Tuesday, Lavrov said the Kremlin needed responses from the U.S. on its security demands before talks could continue.

At the beginning of the week, Russia increased military exercises in Belarus, which borders Ukraine, alarming American and European analysts.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said he could not rule out sending military forces to Cuba or Venezuela should the U.S. not withdraw its military presence from post-Soviet countries, including NATO members like Poland and Romania.

Britain defended any nation's freedom to align itself with a country or alliance.

“Countries choose NATO; NATO does not choose them. If Russia has concerns about the enlargement, it should perhaps ask itself why, when people were free to choose, they chose NATO," United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a speech Monday.

Baerbock, the German foreign minister, has warned Russia will pay a "high price" should it invade Ukraine.

“No country has the right to dictate to other countries which direction they may take, which relationships they may have and which alliances they may enter into. Ukraine’s sovereignty can and will never be (the) subject of negotiations," she said Monday.

US intelligence cites Russian 'false flag' operations

The White House said Friday that U.S. intelligence officials had determined Russia had deployed operatives to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine to carry out "false flag" operations – acts of sabotage and subterfuge – to justify an invasion.

“We are still at a moment where we believe a path of diplomacy can operate in a way that vindicates and reflects our interests and principles. And we're prepared to work with our allies and partners on that,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a news briefing last week.

Sullivan also noted that Russian negotiators have given “contradictory” statements during negotiations but that U.S. intelligence has not determined that an invasion of Ukraine is inevitable.

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Antony Blinken visits Ukraine as tensions with Russia escalate

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