U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Russia to withdraw its troops deployed near Ukraine and seek a diplomatic solution to escalating tensions in the region, warning Moscow of "severe costs" in case of an aggression against its neighbor.
Blinken made the statements after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on December 2 in Stockholm on the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers of countries from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) amid escalating tensions over the buildup of Russian forces near its border with Ukraine.
"The United States and our allies and partners are deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine, including efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within and large-scale military operations," Blinken told a news conference after the talks.
Blinken said he urged Lavrov during what he called a "candid" meeting to seek a diplomatic exit from the crisis, while reaffirming Washington's "unwavering" support for Ukraine’s "territorial integrity, its sovereignty, its independence."
Blinken's talks with Lavrov came a day after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia, where Blinken said Russia's military operations appeared to be an effort to destabilize Ukraine from within.
Ukraine and Western officials say Russia has kept tens of thousands of troops and heavy equipment near the Ukrainian border since war games held in western Russia earlier this year.
On December 1, Russia's Defense Ministry said more than 10,000 Russian troops started military exercises in the country's southwest, close to the Ukrainian border.
Blinken, who also held talks in Stockholm with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, cautioned Moscow that despite what he called "a massive Russian disinformation campaign," Ukraine was neither threatening nor seeking a military confrontation with Russia.
"The only threat is that of renewed Russian aggression toward Ukraine," Blinken said, adding that Moscow will face serious consequences in case Russia invades Ukraine.
"In my meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine," Blinken warned.
He reiterated the message he had for Kuleba, that Washington "is prepared to work with both parties to support a diplomatic resolution through implementation of the Minsk agreements in any way that we can."
The Kremlin has been floating the idea of a possible second summit between Putin and Biden for weeks. Their last one took place in Geneva in June.
Asked about it, Blinken said: "I think it’s likely the presidents will speak directly in the near future."
Lavrov told Blinken that Moscow needed "long-term security guarantees" that would halt NATO's eastward expansion.
"We're going to make sure we are heard but the main thing is our security," Lavrov told a news conference after the meeting.
"So if NATO still refuses to discuss this theme or the guarantees or ideas put forward by the president of Russia Vladimir Putin, of course we will take measures to ensure that our security, our sovereignty and our territorial integrity does not depend on anyone else."
Putin on December 1 demanded legal guarantees that NATO would not expand further east and deploy weapons near Russia’s borders, a reference to Western arms supplies to Ukraine and joint military drills.
In a further indication of the deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington, Russia said on December 1 that it was expelling a number of U.S. embassy staff who have been at their posts for more than three years. The diplomats have until January 31 to leave, the ministry said.
Russia and the United States have exchanged several rounds of diplomatic expulsions and imposed other restrictions on their respective diplomatic missions in recent years as relations sink to post-Cold War lows.
However, Lavrov struck a more conciliatory note on the issue during the news conference, by proposing that the two countries bring an end to the dispute over the size of their embassies.