WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a diplomatic solution to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “still possible” but warned that the West is ready to “respond forcefully” if that fails.
Speaking at the State Department in Washington on January 7 ahead of his meetings with allies and Russian officials to address the buildup and European security in general, Blinken blasted the Kremlin, accusing it of instigating the crisis along Ukraine’s border in an attempt to carve out a sphere of influence.
Blinken said the West is going into the talks “committed to diplomacy” but will not compromise on key principles, such as NATO’s open-door policy and the right of Ukraine to join the alliance.
Russia massed about 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and in Crimea in the late autumn before presenting the United States and NATO with a list of demands for security guarantees, including an end to the alliance’s eastward expansion.
The United States has said the buildup could be a prelude to another invasion of Ukraine, something the Kremlin has denied.
Blinken said Russia is trying to turn three sets of talks next week into a debate about NATO but that Ukraine will be “front and center on the agenda...because that's what precipitated this crisis.”
U.S. officials will meet with their Russian counterparts on January 10 in Geneva followed by a NATO-Russia Council meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on January 12. A meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- which includes the United States, Ukraine, and Russia -- will be held in Vienna on January 13.
Blinken used his address at the State Department to lay out what the United States sees as the root cause of the crisis, highlight Russian "malign" activities that have destabilized Europe, and counter various Russian interpretations of events.
Blinken dismissed Russian allegations that Ukraine was to blame for the current crisis as “absurd” and more “gaslighting.”
The top U.S. diplomat said the root cause of the crisis lies in Russia’s inability to accept Ukraine’s decision to pursue a democratic path.
He listed a long series of Russian aggressions against the country -- including territorial annexation, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, energy strangulation -- ever since Ukrainian citizens ousted Kremlin-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
Blinken also rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that the West broke an agreement with the Soviet Union not to expand NATO and that the alliance is a threat to Russia.
He said no such agreement was ever reached between the West and Moscow and said that NATO had reduced the size of its forces following the end of the Cold War until Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014.
Blinken did not exclude that Russia's "nonstarter" demands could be a ruse to justify military action against Ukraine, saying it’s “part of [the Kremlin’s] playbook.”
He also said Russia could try to instigate an incident and then use it as a justification to attack Ukraine, “hoping that by the time the world realizes the ruse, it'll be too late.”
He said another attack against Ukraine likely will only work counter to Putin’s stated goals as NATO would be forced to bolster its presence on the continent.
However, Blinken held out hope the West and Russia could make progress on some issues, including increasing transparency, instituting new risk reduction measures, and on arms control.
He said Russia must address the concerns of the West about its malign actions across the continent.
“We go into [these meetings] committed to diplomacy, committed to dialogue, but equally committed to stand up for the principles that Russia is putting at risk,” he said.