US secretary of state Antony Blinken will travel to Kyiv and Berlin this week as the White House continues to seek an end to tensions over Ukraine amid threats of a renewed Russian invasion.
Blinken will meet Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday, and foreign ministers from France, Germany, and the UK a day later, the US state department said on Tuesday. The hastily arranged trip comes after talks last week on Russia’s security demands with the US and Nato reached a “dead end”.
The White House warned on Friday that Russia had planted operatives for a “false flag” operation that could be used as a pretext for open aggression against Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, denies he is planning to use force against Ukraine but has massed troops at the border and threatened an unspecified “military-technical response” if the US and Nato do not meet Moscow’s demands that the transatlantic military alliance roll back its forces and pledge never to admit Ukraine.
After the EU was sidelined from last week’s talks, France and Germany are seeking to revive the four-person Normandy format talks with Russia and Ukraine on the stalled peace process in the Donbas.
While visiting Moscow, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock warned that time was running out for diplomacy to solve the Ukraine crisis, and that Germany and Europe would be forced to act on any threat to EU rules even if it had an economic cost.
“In recent weeks, more than 100,000 Russian soldiers with tanks and armoured vehicles have gathered near Ukraine for no apparent reason,” she said after meeting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. “It’s hard not to see that as a threat.”
The US and its European allies have said Russia’s demands — which would essentially rewrite Europe’s post-cold war security order — are unacceptable, and have threatened crippling sanctions if Moscow uses force against Ukraine.
Though the west remains divided on the specific steps, they would likely go far beyond the sanctions that failed to deter Russia from seizing the Crimean peninsula and fuelling the war in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas border region in 2014.
Baerbock said Germany’s response could involve the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which has been completed but is at present stalled over European regulation requirements.
“We have made clear: If energy is used as a weapon [by Russia], this will have corresponding consequences for this pipeline,” she said.
But Lavrov said Russia would welcome US involvement in additional talks separate from the Normandy format, indicating that the Kremlin sees a possible resolution to the Ukraine crisis as part of a grand bargain on security with the White House.
“We have reason to believe that the current administration has a more realistic view on resolving the Ukraine conflict,” Lavrov said at a press conference after meeting Baerbock.
Lavrov repeated Russia’s accusations that Ukraine was attempting to “sabotage” the Minsk treaty and said he hoped the US could force Kyiv to fulfil its obligations to give two Russia-backed, separatist regions special status under Ukraine’s constitution.
Ukraine has resisted this step, which it says would give Moscow a veto over its ambitions to join the EU and Nato, and blamed Russia for the talks’ collapse.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson warned that Putin must not be “allowed to rewrite the rules” over Ukraine, telling Cabinet ministers during a meeting on Tuesday that Moscow was leading a “disinformation campaign aimed at undermining” Kyiv.
Britain has said it is supplying Ukraine with short-range anti-tank missiles, in light of Russia’s “increasingly threatening behaviour”, and that about 100 British military personnel have been deployed to assist with training.