US warns Russia of ‘confrontation’ risks ahead of Ukraine talks

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) and US President Joe Biden (R). © Angela Weiss, Alexei Druzhinin, Valentyn Ogirenko, AFP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said Russia had to choose between dialogue and confrontation as Moscow ruled out any concessions over Ukraine ahead of this week’s critical talks on the crisis.

"There's a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation," Blinken told CNN's “State of the Union” show.

"The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine,” he added.

Blinken’s warning came hours after Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the Kremlin was "disappointed" with signals coming from the US and NATO’s European members as Moscow seeks a new security arrangement with the West in exchange for a pull-back of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border.

The high-level discussions start a week of diplomacy in which Russia will meet with NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the US trying to assure European allies they will not be sidelined.

Russia since late last year has amassed tens of thousands of troops at the Ukrainian border and demanded guarantees that NATO will not expand further eastward.

The Kremlin is insisting NATO must never grant membership to ex-Soviet Ukraine, which is pushing to join the military alliance.

EU should be at the table, says French minister

Amid mounting concerns in many European capitals that Russia is trying to sideline the EU on the crisis at its border, French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune on Sunday said the bloc should not be excluded from talks on Ukraine.

"Europeans shouldn't be absent from the negotiation table," Beaune told TV network CNEWS.

France's foreign minister on Friday warned that Moscow was trying to bypass the EU by holding talks directly with Washington over Ukraine.

Beaune cautioned against what he called falling into Russia's trap.

Putin met his US counterpart Joe Biden in Geneva in June and agreed on regular "stability" talks between Sherman and Ryabkov, who will again lead the Russian delegation.

'Massive' retaliation

In two phone calls to Putin, Biden has warned of severe consequences if Russia invades Ukraine.

Measures under consideration include sanctions on Putin's inner circle, cancelling Russia's controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany or, in the most drastic scenario, severing Russia's links to the world's banking system.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that Washington would also send more troops to eastern NATO members such as Poland and the Baltics if Russia invaded.

Europeans have showed solidarity, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visiting the frontline in Ukraine, although some nations are expected to hesitate at the strongest measures.

"Whatever the solution, Europe has to be involved," EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

Russia insists it was deceived after the Cold War and understood that NATO would not expand.

Instead, the US-led alliance accepted most of the former Warsaw Pact nations and the three Baltic nations that were under Soviet rule.

Russia has inflicted intense pressure on neighbouring Ukraine since 2014 after a revolution overthrew a government that had sided with the Kremlin against moving closer to Europe.

Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and backs an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.

At a time that Russia is also intervening to shore up allies facing popular uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, Moscow has insisted it wants concrete progress in talks with Washington.

Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov warned after the call with Biden that the United States would make a "colossal mistake" if it went ahead with sanctions.

'Gigantic bluff'?

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, meeting foreign ministers of the alliance on Friday, said there remained real risks of a Russian invasion.

But John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, described the Russian troop build-up as a "gigantic bluff" by Putin to seek a negotiated agreement.

"They are trying to see if the Biden administration or Europe will blink," said Herbst, now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

"As long as the Biden administration remains at least as strong as it is now," he said, "it probably is enough to keep Putin from striking large into Ukraine, but I don't rule out something smaller."

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the Geneva talks were more about preventing the Ukraine crisis from accelerating than reaching a major deal.

"I think this is about pulling the pendulum back, if we can, towards thicker interaction and more effective diplomacy and communication -- not permanent and forever resolution of all problems."

While also downplaying the possibility of a full-scale invasion, Rojansky said the risks of the Russian build-up were real.

"There is the principle of Chekhov -- you put a loaded gun on the stage in Act One and it has to be fired by Act Three."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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