(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. and Russia are moving ahead with their diplomatic engagements over Russia menacing Ukraine, according to senior State Department officials, after the two countries’ top diplomats spoke Tuesday.
But as talks continue to proceed, there have been no results yet — with more than 100,000 Russian troops still massed on Ukraine’s borders, including increasingly in its northern neighbor Belarus.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin said the U.S. has “ignored” Russia’s key demands that NATO bar Ukraine from joining and pull back allied troops from Eastern European countries — his first comments on the crisis in over a month.
But his government is still analyzing the U.S. response to Russia, laid out in a formal proposal hand-delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Moscow last week, he said.
During a critical call, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “did agree that the ideas on both sides that have been exchanged did form the basis for the potential for serious discussion on a range of issues,” said a senior State Department official.
Those ideas include issues like arms control and greater transparency in military exercises, they added, expressing some hope that Russia’s continued engagement could lay the groundwork for real negotiations.
But for now, Russia is still formulating its response to those U.S. ideas, senior State Department officials said Lavrov told Blinken. Once they are finalized, they will be sent to Putin for approval and then sent to the U.S. After that, Blinken and Lavrov will speak again, the senior officials said.
“I do think they agree that ideas in that non-paper could be the basis for a constructive conversation about how he enhance security in Europe,” said a second senior State Department official. The “non-paper” is what U.S. officials have called the U.S. response to Russia’s original demands.
But Lavrov didn’t outright say that during the call, they conceded. Later on Tuesday, Putin seemed more dismissive of the U.S. proposal, saying, “It is already clear that Russia’s fundamental concerns have been ignored.”
Pressed on whether the Russians may be buying time or stalling before a renewed attack on Ukraine, the second senior State Department official said, “Because we don’t President Putin has made a decision [on whether to further invade Ukraine], we think it’s important to keep the diplomatic option on the table — so to the extent that Russia wants to engage in that diplomatic track, we are also open to having that continued diplomatic engagement.”
Blinken and Lavrov didn’t agree on when or how those talks would continue, but the U.S. has called for them to include one-on-one meetings, as well as negotiations between NATO and Russia and dialogue at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Cold War-era forum that includes the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine.
On Monday, Moscow sent the U.S., as well as several NATO allies and OSCE members, a similar letter seeking clarification about security principles enshrined in one of the OSCE’s key documents, the Helsinki Final Act, according to U.S. and Russian officials. The letter was not Russia’s response to the U.S. proposal, but seems to be part of its effort to formulate one.
“NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you can not strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin said Tuesday during a press conference with Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
As the U.S. and NATO wait for that formal response, Blinken again urged Russia to deescalate tensions by pulling back troops, heavy weaponry, and equipment from Ukraine’s borders. But Lavrov gave no indication during the call that Russia would do so, the senior officials said.
“All of the actions that we are seeing on the ground do not suggest escalation. We continue to see in fact more Russian troops coming not only to Russia’s border with Ukraine, but as you know, also to Belarus for these supposed exercises,” the second senior State Department official said.
Russia and Belarus have said those forces are preparing for military exercises to improve their readiness. But the U.S. said Monday it has evidence that more than 30,000 Russian troops will mass in Belarus in the coming days, citing declassified U.S. intelligence — a concerning move that puts them within two hours of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.
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