U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose a "diplomatic and peaceful path" and said Washington continues to pursue diplomacy with Moscow as long as it can to avoid aggression in Ukraine amid mounting fears that an invasion could be imminent.
Alarms are sounding throughout Western capitals about the danger of a new major conflict after Russia massed an estimated 100,000 troops along Ukraine's borders and deployed a sizable force in Belarus for what Moscow and Minsk say are snap military exercises.
"We've made it very clear to Moscow that if it chooses to renew aggression against Ukraine, it will mean that it will face very severe consequences -- and again, that's coming not just from the United States but from countries across Europe and beyond," Blinken told a joint news conference in Kyiv with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.
"Our strength depends on preserving our unity, and that includes unity within Ukraine. I think one of Moscow's long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that," he added.
Blinken, in Kyiv as part of a European tour before he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on January 21, said that, if Russia carries through with any aggressive moves against Ukraine, Washington is prepared to provide additional materials to Kyiv to help it defend itself.
Blinken did not provide any details but earlier a senior U.S. official said President Joe Biden's administration last month approved the provision of $200 million in additional defensive security assistance to Kyiv. The official, who spoke under condition of anonymity, also did not detail the contents of the aid package.
In an interview with Voice of America in Kyiv, Blinken voiced hope that despite indications that Russia continues massing troops near Ukraine, his upcoming talks with Lavrov will show "that diplomacy remains an open possibility."
"Unfortunately, we continue to see Russia having amassed very significant forces on Ukraine's borders. That process seems to continue. On the other hand, the fact that we are meeting in Geneva, the fact that we will be discussing the conversations and exchanges that we've had over the last 10 days, also suggests to me that diplomacy remains an open possibility," Blinken told VOA on January 19.
Echoing earlier remarks that he made at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, the chief U.S. diplomat said the path to a peaceful solution ultimately rests with Putin since it was the Russian leader who prompted the West to beef up its defenses in the aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea almost eight years ago.
"When you think about it, President Putin, going back to 2014, has managed to precipitate what he says he wants to prevent, because, among other things, NATO had to reinforce itself after Russia invaded Ukraine, seized Crimea, the Donbas, after that happened," Blinken told VOA.
"So, we've laid out the consequences for Russia but also the far-preferable path of resolving differences diplomatically and we'll see which path President Putin decides to take."
Kuleba also said after meeting with Blinken that he hoped talks later in the week in Geneva between the United States and Russia would be "successful in changing Russia's behavior to be less aggressive and more constructive."
While in Kyiv, Blinken also met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who thanked the United States for increasing military assistance to Ukraine during these "difficult times."
In response to the beefed-up aid, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called on the West to stop supplying Ukraine with weapons while describing the situation around European security as "critical."
Blinken is set to travel to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France, and Germany on January 20 as he looks to ensure Western unity before heading to Geneva to meet Lavrov after the two spoke by phone on January 18.
The meetings will focus on "joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine" including the allies' "readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia," according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Russia's deployment of forces along Ukraine's border, and in occupied Crimea, is one of the largest unscheduled massing of forces since March 2014. Russia is also backing separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.
Moscow has denied any plans to attack Ukraine and accused NATO of planning to admit the country as a member of the alliance, as well as deploy offensive weaponry there.
Last week, Russian diplomats met with top officials from the United States, NATO, and European countries to discuss the sweeping demands Moscow has made, which amount to a major restructuring of Europe’s security architecture.
The talks yielded no breakthroughs, and that, plus belligerent rhetoric from Moscow, has alarmed Western officials.
In an interview with RFE/RL on January 19, Czech Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil said any withdrawal of NATO forces "would mean weakening the defense abilities of the democratic world."
"Totalitarian powers would start to gain more influence. If a totalitarian power starts to gain influence and an opportunity that democracy makes concessions...it leads to them increasing their demands. So a policy of concessions, a policy of seeking compromise, in the case of Russia's aim of expanding its territory and its power, is absolutely the wrong policy," he said.
Russia maintained a tough posture on January 19, with Ryabkov saying there can't be any meaningful talks on possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures if the West doesn't heed the Russian demands.
"For us, the matter of priority is achievement of watertight, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees" that Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics will not join NATO.
Blinken said that Washington has no plans to present a formal response to Russia over its demands, adding that "we need to see where we are and whether there remain opportunities."
He also warned that Moscow is trying to sow panic and destabilize Ukraine and that "we must make every effort to prevent Russia from achieving this goal without even taking weapons out of our pockets."
There is growing concern in Washington that a possible Russian attack could come via Belarus, where strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka is clinging to power with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin following large-scale popular protests against his brutal 27-year rule.
Lithuania's Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas tweeted on January 19 that his country, a former Soviet republic and a current NATO member, considers the Russian troop deployment in Belarus "not only as a destabilizing factor of the security situation, but also as an even greater direct threat to Lithuania."