U.S. and Russian foreign ministers to meet as tensions in Ukraine soar

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Stockholm (AFP) – Chief diplomats from the United States and Russia are due to meet in Sweden on Thursday as tensions soar after Washington expressed concern over Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine and warned against “high impact” sanctions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov are due to meet near Stockholm on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE is one of the few forums for international dialogue to which both the United States and Russia belong.

Since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, the body has been tasked with monitoring compliance with peace agreements aimed at resolving the conflict with separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Kiev’s Western allies have sounded the alarm bells that Russia has massed troops along Ukraine’s borders over fears of a possible invasion.

Moscow, accused of supporting separatists fighting Kiev, has denied planning an attack and accuses NATO of fueling tensions.

“We will respond resolutely”

Speaking at a NATO meeting in Riga, the capital of Latvia on Wednesday, Blinken said he was “deeply concerned about evidence that Russia is planning significant aggressive measures against Ukraine.”

“We don’t know if President Putin made the decision to invade. We know he’s building the capacity to do so in the short term, if he so decides,” he said.

Blinken insisted that “diplomacy is the only responsible means of resolving this potential crisis”, but warned that there would be “far-reaching and lasting consequences” for Moscow if it continued aggression.

“We have made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a series of high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past,” Blinken said.

Moscow retaliated on Wednesday, accusing Ukraine of rounding up tens of thousands of troops in the east of the country, as concerns grow over an escalation.

Putin also called for talks with the West aimed at providing “legal guarantees” against the further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of any weapons system near the Russian border.

After much of Eastern Europe joins the US-led bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow refuses to accept that Ukraine can one day follow suit – even though Kiev’s membership talks are currently at a standstill.

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for direct talks with Moscow on the escalating conflict with separatists in the east of his country, which has already killed 13,000.

‘Crucial moment’

Before meeting Lavrov, Blinken is due to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting, held near Arlanda airport in Stockholm.

Besides Ukraine, other issues that could be discussed include the migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and the EU and the resurgence of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, members of the OSCE.

The long-scheduled OSCE meeting “comes at a crucial time,” US Ambassador to the body Michael Carpenter said as tensions mount at Europe’s gates.

The EU reached an agreement on new sanctions against Belarus on Wednesday, and the United States will soon follow suit, the US State Department said.

The plenary session of OSCE ministers should not lead to the adoption of major agreements, unanimity being required.

Moscow frequently blocks resolutions on Ukraine because Crimea is described as Ukrainian or Russia is characterized as a direct actor in the conflict, while Moscow officially considers it an internal Ukrainian conflict.

The Blinken-Lavrov talks are the first high-level meeting between the two superpowers since a summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June.

The two foreign ministers have already met in May, during a meeting of the Arctic Council in Iceland.


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