(CNSNews.com) – After three sets of talks in Europe last week failed to bridge the gulf between Russia and the West over Ukraine and NATO expansion, the diplomacy rises to Cabinet level this week with a planned meeting in Geneva on Friday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart.
Blinken will meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after holding talks with Ukrainian and European leaders in Kyiv and Berlin on Wednesday and Thursday, a senior State Department official said on background.
The official warned that the crisis over Russian troops amassing near Ukraine’s borders was far from over, and in fact had taken a new turn with the deployment of Russian rapid response troops in Belarus for snap “joint exercises.”
“This is neither an exercise nor normal troop movement,” the official said in reference to the arrival of Russian forces in Belarus – a close Moscow ally and Ukraine’s northern neighbor.
“It is a show of strength designed to cause or give false pretext for a crisis as Russia plans for a possible invasion,” the official charged. “And let’s be clear: This is extremely dangerous. We are now at a stage where Russia could, at any point, launch an attack on Ukraine.”
The crisis dominated last week’s U.S.-Russia strategic stability talks, NATO-Russia Council meeting, and session of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Moscow’s reaction to the week of dialogue was deeply pessimistic, however, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declaring the process to be a “dead end.”
But when asked about that glum assessment, the senior U.S. official pushed back.
“I think the fact that Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed [during a phone conversation earlier on Tuesday] to meet on Friday in Geneva suggests that perhaps diplomacy is not dead.”
Earlier in the day Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that if “the conversation” was to continue, Russia expects a response to its proposed draft “security guarantees,” made public last month.
Moscow’s foreign ministry said Lavrov made clear in the phone call with Blinken that Russia wants “specific article-by-article comments” on the two proposed drafts, “on paper” and as soon as possible.
The U.S. and NATO have repeatedly rejected the Kremlin’s demands for an end to further expansion of the transatlantic alliance, and it remains unclear how the impasse could be broken by yet another meeting.
Asked what the administration expects will be different about the Blinken-Lavrov after last week’s engagements, the senior official said again that the fact it’s taking place “says to me diplomacy is not dead.”
“I think it is still too early to tell if the Russian government is genuinely interested in diplomacy, if it is prepared to negotiate seriously in good faith, or whether it will use discussions as a pretext to claim that diplomacy didn’t address Moscow’s interests,” the official continued.
The official said Blinken was “150 percent committed to seeing if there is a diplomatic off-ramp here,” but stressed that the administration continues to “prepare for a different outcome, which means that if Russia does decide to pursue further military aggression against Ukraine, if it chooses to further escalate, we have been working very closely and effectively with our allies and partners to ensure that there would be massive consequence.”
At a Defense Department briefing on Tuesday, spokesman John Kirby told reporters, "There's no sign, no indication that the Russians are willing to de-escalate. And -- and as we said -- well, as our diplomats said more than a week ago, that one of the things that we were willing to talk to the Russians about was changing the scale and scope of our exercises, if and only if there was going to be reciprocity on the Russian side.
"Again, we see no signs of -- of de-escalation. So we're going to continue to try to pursue the diplomatic path, and -- and as an administration, make sure that we're -- that we're ready, should that path fail and should there be another incursion of Russian forces into Ukraine."
Before Blinken meets with Lavrov on Friday, he plans to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, before visiting Berlin for discussions on the crisis with his German, French and British partners.
Belarus 'exercises' add to worries
This week's deployment of Russian troops to Belarus, purportedly for joint exercises, has prompted concerns of a potential link to President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine strategy.
“The timing is notable,” a second senior State Department official said in a separate background briefing, “and of course raises concerns that Russia could intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises in order, potentially, to attack Ukraine from the north.”
The official voiced concern that Russia may be preying on the “vulnerability” of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is acutely at odds with his domestic opposition and with the West, and is relying heavily on Putin for support.
The State Department official was asked whether the Russian deployment in Belarus signaled an increased intent to invade Ukraine, but pointed instead to it increasing the capability.
“What it represents is an increased capability for Russia to launch this attack, increased opportunity, increased avenues, increased routes,” the official said, arguing that the exercises were called at short notice and were “insufficiently notified.”
Under the OSCE’s “Vienna Document,” planned military exercises need to be notified to the OSCE in writing 42 days in advance, if more than 9,000 troops are involved. Russia and Belarus are both members of the OSCE.
Russia’s defense ministry has not provided a number of the troops being deployed in Belarus, but did say that the number of participants will not warrant notification as required by the OSCE.
It named five military training grounds and four airfields in Belarus where exercises will take place. Two of them (Luninets and Brestsky) are situated close to Ukraine’s border. Russia has repeatedly denied plans to attack Ukraine.