UPDATED: Blinken vows swift and severe response if Russia attacks Ukraine

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GENEVA, Jan 21 (Reuters) – The top diplomats of Russia and the United States played down any prospect of quickly resolving their differences over Ukraine at talks they began in Switzerland on Friday, but the U.S. side still hoped the meeting could de-escalate soaring tensions.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shook hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Hotel President Wilson where their meeting took place, before they sat down to talk.

Lavrov told Blinken he did not expect a breakthrough at the Geneva talks.

“(Our) proposals are extremely concrete and we await equally concrete answers,” Lavrov said.

“This is a critical moment. You’re right: We don’t expect to resolve our differences here today,” Blinken said in his opening remarks.

“But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy, of dialogue remains open. We’re committed to walking that path, to resolving our differences peacefully and I hope to test that proposition today,” Blinken added.

Blinken said after talks with Russia’s foreign minister on Friday that Moscow would face a “swift, severe and a united response” if it invades Ukraine.

Blinken said after the talks in Geneva that Washington had agreed to provide written comments to Russia after Moscow demanded security guarantees, including a pledge that Ukraine will never be able to join NATO.

He described Friday’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, intended to reduce tensions that have risen since Russia massed troops near Ukraine’s border, as frank and useful.

“We’ve been clear – if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine’s border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken told a news conference in Geneva.

Western states fear Moscow is planning a new assault on Ukraine after sending in forces into the former Soviet republic 2014 to annex the Crimea peninsula. Russia denies planning an attack but says it could take unspecified military action if its security demands are not met.

Blinken said Washington had sought during Friday’s talks to determine whether Moscow was prepared to take a diplomatic path to defuse tensions over Ukraine.

Both sides agreed it was important for the diplomatic process to continue, he said.

Lavrov said after meeting Blinken that he hoped that emotions would cool down over Ukraine and repeated Russian assertions that it poses no threat to its neighbor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks with the United States in Geneva on Friday that dialogue would continue over Moscow’s security demands and that it expected written responses from Washington next week.

Speaking at a news conference after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Lavrov said he hoped that emotions would cool down over Ukraine and repeated Russian assertions that it poses no threat to its former Soviet neighbour. 

Washington’s hopes of building a united front of opposition to Moscow were complicated by U.S. President Joe Biden’s comments at a news conference on Wednesday in which he predicted Russia would “move in” on Ukraine and said Moscow would pay dearly.

“President Biden’s remarks were not helpful, even if he corrected himself later,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president at the Berlin office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine, and Western states fear Moscow is planning a new assault on a country it invaded in 2014 to annex the Crimean peninsula. Russia denies it is planning an attack, but says it could take unspecified military action if a list of demands are not met, including a promise from NATO never to admit Ukraine.

Asked by CBS News if Russia was intimidated by Ukraine, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on arriving for the talks on a cold and blustery day in Geneva: “We’re not afraid of anyone, even not of the U.S..”

In Moscow, the Kremlin reacted coolly to a Russian parliament initiative to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states, saying it was important to avoid steps that could increase tensions.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was important not to try and score political points in such a fragile situation.

The Kremlin was not expecting Blinken to hand over a written response to Russia’s sweeping demands for security guarantees from the West on Friday, Peskov said.

Russia wants NATO to promise not to admit Ukraine as a member and halt its eastward expansion. The U.S.-led alliance has rejected that.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Alexander Ermochenko in Donetsk and Mark Trevelyan in London; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Michael Shields, Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Photo – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) attend bilateral talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine in Geneva, Switzerland, 21 January 2022. EPA-EFE/MARTIAL TREZZINI

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