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Russia, U.S. dug in ahead of talks

Ukrainian president urges citizens to ‘calm down’ in video by The Associated Press | January 20, 2022 at 5:06 a.m.
In this photo provided by Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Press Office Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba talk during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Press Office via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine -- With critical talks approaching, the United States and Russia on Wednesday showed no sign either will relent from entrenched positions on Ukraine that have raised fears of a Russian invasion and a new war in Europe.

Speaking in Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of planning to reinforce the more than 100,000 troops it has deployed along the Ukrainian border and suggested that number could double "on relatively short order." Blinken did not elaborate, but Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country's far east to its ally Belarus, which also shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games next month.


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Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive whatever difficulties come its way.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a video address to the nation on Wednesday evening, urging Ukrainians not to panic over fears of a possible invasion. But he said the country has been living with the Russian threat for many years and should always be prepared for war.

He called on all Ukrainians, especially the elderly, to "breathe" and "calm down."

Blinken's visit to the Ukrainian capital came two days before he is to meet in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That follows a series of inconclusive talks last weekthat failed to ease rising tensions.

Russian military activity has been increasing in recent weeks, but the U.S. has not concluded whether President Vladimir Putin plans to invade or whether the show of force is intended to squeeze the security concessions without an actual conflict.

In Kyiv, Blinken reiterated Washington's demands for Russia to de-escalate the situation by removing its forces from the border area, something that Moscow has flatly refused to do. Blinken said he wouldn't give Russia the written response it expects to its demands when he and Lavrov meet in Geneva.

Meanwhile, a top Russian diplomat said Moscow would not back down from its insistence that the U.S. formally ban Ukraine from ever joining NATO and reduce its and the alliance's military presence in Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine but that its demands for security guarantees were non-negotiable.

The U.S. and its allies have said the Russian demands are non-starters, that Russia knows they are and that Putin is using them in part to create a pretext for invading Ukraine, which has strong ethnic and historical ties to Russia. Ukraine aspires to join the alliance, though has little hope of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Blinken urged Western nations to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. He also reassured Ukraine's leader of NATO support while calling for Ukrainians to stand strong.

Blinken told Zelenskyy that the U.S. and its allies were steadfast in backing his country and its democratic aspirations against Russian attempts to incite division and discord through "relentless aggression."

The Biden administration had said earlier it was providing an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Blinken said more assistance is coming and that it would only increase should Russia invade.

Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the aid, which was approved in late December but not confirmed until Wednesday.

"This [military] support not only speaks to our strategic plans of Ukraine joining the alliance, but more importantly to the level of our military, our military supplies," he said, referring to Kyiv's desire to join NATO.

"Your visit is very important," Zelenskyy said. "It underlines once again your powerful support of our independence and sovereignty."

Ukraine's president also gave assurances that the country was strengthening its defense capabilities and doing everything possible to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

"Ukraine doesn't want a war, but must always be prepared for it," Zelenskyy said.

From Kyiv, Blinken plans a short trip to Berlin for talks with German and other European allies on Thursday before meeting with Lavrov.

Washington and its allies have kept the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.

Ryabkov insisted, however, that there can't be any meaningful talks on those issues if the West doesn't heed the main Russian requests for the non-expansion of NATO with a formal response. He said the Russian demands are "a package and we're not prepared to divide it into different parts -- to start processing some of those at the expense of standing idle on others."

Blinken, though, said no such formal response was coming.

"I won't be presenting a paper at that time to Foreign Minister Lavrov," he said. "We need to see where we are and see if there remain opportunities to pursue the diplomacy and pursue the dialogue."

Information for this article was contributed by Vladimir Isachenkov and Yuras Karmanau of The Associated Press.

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