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The U.S. and Russia are talking, and Ukraine's fate hangs in the balance

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland.
Alex Brandon
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Switzerland Friday to meet with his Kremlin counterpart in hopes of heading off a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. But neither side was sounding optimistic on the immediate outcome.

The tense weeks-long impasse seems unlikely to be resolved during face-to-face talks between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Russia, with an estimated 100,000 troops poised for a possible move across the border into Ukraine, is demanding written guarantees that Kyiv will never be allowed to join NATO. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it has any plans to invade.

The U.S. has been equally adamant that Ukraine should make its own decision on whether or not to join the alliance formed in 1949, originally as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Western Europe.

Blinken and Lavrov shook hands before sitting down to talks at the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, with the Russian foreign minister suggesting that no breakthrough was imminent. "(Our) proposals are extremely concrete and we await equally concrete answers," Lavrov said.

Blinken, in his opening remarks, said it was a "critical moment" in relations and expressed hope that talks could at least establish a framework for de-escalation.

"You're right: We don't expect to resolve our differences here today," Blinken said in response to Lavrov. "But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy, of dialog remains open."

"We're committed to walking that path, to resolving our differences peacefully and I hope to test that proposition today," he said.

The U.S. envoy arrived in Switzerland after meetings in Berlin with several NATO allies to try to shore up support for sanctions and present a united front against Russia, should it attack its neighbor. In his remarks in Germany, Blinken said that Russian President Vladimir Putin faced a simple, but stark choice: "dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand; conflict and consequences on the other hand."

Blinken's efforts follow remarks by President Biden earlier this week that have served to muddy the waters. Speaking on Wednesday, Biden said he thought Russia "will move" against Ukraine but suggested that anything short of a full invasion would leave the U.S. and its European allies in a quandary as to how to respond.

"I think what you're going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades," Biden said. "And it depends on what it does. It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do."

The White House has spent the last few days trying to clean up Biden's remarks, which could send the wrong signal to Moscow. In any case, Biden's comments sparked a response from Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who in a tweet on Thursday said: "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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