US urges de-escalation over Ukraine offering Russia a diplomatic path

Russia has demanded NATO pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and bar its neighbour Ukraine, a former Soviet state, from ever joining
US urges de-escalation over Ukraine offering Russia a diplomatic path

Russian soldiers attend a military exercising at the Golovenki training ground in the Moscow region, Russia. Picture: Alexei Ivanov/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

The United States said on Wednesday it had set out a diplomatic path to address sweeping Russian demands in eastern Europe, as Moscow held security talks with Western countries and intensified its military build-up near Ukraine with new drills.

In a written response to Russia's demands delivered in person by its ambassador in Moscow, the US repeated its commitment to upholding NATO's "open-door" policy while offering a "principled and pragmatic evaluation" of the Kremlin's concerns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Blinken spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about Ukraine on Wednesday, highlighting the global security and economic risks that could stem from further Russian aggression, the State Department said.

"Secretary Blinken ... conveyed that de-escalation and diplomacy are the responsible way forward," department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Russia has demanded NATO pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and bar its neighbour Ukraine, a former Soviet state, from ever joining. Washington and its NATO allies reject that position but say they are ready to discuss other topics such as arms control and confidence-building measures.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about Russia and Ukraine during a briefing at the State Department on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about Russia and Ukraine during a briefing at the State Department on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)

"Putting things in writing is ... a good way to make sure we're as precise as possible, and the Russians understand our positions, our ideas, as clearly as possible. Right now, the document is with them and the ball is in their court," Blinken told reporters.

Whether President Vladimir Putin is prepared to accept Washington and its allies' agenda will determine the next phase of the crisis, in which Moscow has massed around 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine while denying it plans to invade.

NATO says it is putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets, while the US, Britain and others are providing weapons to help Ukraine defend against Russia's much larger army. 

Asked how much time Russia would need to study NATO's response, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told Interfax news agency: "We will read it. Study it. The partners studied our project for almost a month and a half."

DIALOGUE 

In Paris, diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany held more than eight hours of talks on ending a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, part of the wider crisis between Moscow and Kyiv that risks becoming a full-scale war.

The so-called "Normandy" talks were a good signal from Russia and a step toward defusing broader tensions, though major differences remained with further talks planned in Berlin in two weeks, a French official said.

Whether President Vladimir Putin is prepared to accept Washington and its allies' agenda will determine the next phase of the crisis. Picture: Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Whether President Vladimir Putin is prepared to accept Washington and its allies' agenda will determine the next phase of the crisis. Picture: Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Western-Russian differences were on full display on Tuesday with US president Joe Biden saying he would consider imposing sanctions personally on Putin if he invades Ukraine, part of an attempt by Washington to convince Moscow that any new action against Ukraine would bring massive costs.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said personal sanctions on Putin would be "politically destructive", adding that Russia's top leaders were legally barred from holding assets, property and bank accounts abroad.

Putin's personal wealth is a sensitive topic in Russia. According to his most recent official disclosure, he earned just shy of 10 million roubles (€112,483) in 2020.

Peskov has previously said that imposing sanctions on Putin would amount to a severing of diplomatic relations.

MILITARY MANOEUVRES, ENERGY PRECAUTIONS 

Russia staged new military drills on land and on the Black Sea on Wednesday and moved more paratroopers and fighter jets to Belarus, north of Ukraine, for what it describes as joint exercises there next month.

Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Moscow had not yet massed sufficient forces for a large-scale offensive, but that did not mean it could not do so later. Blinken said Americans in Ukraine should consider leaving.

A day after the US delivered Javelin anti-tank missiles, launchers and other hardware to Ukraine, Germany came under criticism for saying it would supply Kyiv with 5,000 military helmets while stopping short of providing weapons. 

The Russian army's Iskander missile launchers take positions during drills in Russia. Picture: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
The Russian army's Iskander missile launchers take positions during drills in Russia. Picture: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told Bild newspaper the German helmets were a joke. "What kind of support will Germany send next?" he asked. "Pillows?"

The spat highlights the complicated task the US faces in trying to build agreement with European allies, who maintain strong business relations with Russia and rely heavily on it for energy, on a strong sanctions package if Moscow attacks.

Top Italian business leaders, including UniCredit bank (CRDI.MI), went ahead with a video conference with Putin on Wednesday despite a call from their government not to take part. Ukraine was not discussed, the Italian organiser said.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany "will not move forward" if Russia invades Ukraine, though he did not elaborate on whether Germany had taken the same position.

Washington worries Nord Stream 2 would increase Europe's reliance on Russia for gas.

US officials say they are in talks with major energy-producing countries and companies worldwide over a potential diversion of supplies to Europe if Russia invades Ukraine.

When asked about reports that industry had little or no capacity to provide the required supplies, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday the United States faced logistical challenges, especially around moving natural gas.

"That's part of our discussions with a lot of companies and countries," Psaki said. "But again, these conversations are ongoing and we don't intend to fail."

'Scenario planning'

Russian warships are making their way towards Ireland, as the Government begins "scenario planning" for economic sanctions being imposed on Moscow.

The Russian navy's missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov sails off for an exercise in the Arctic. Russia has launched a series of drills amid the tensions over Ukraine and deployed an estimated 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian territory that fueled Western fears of an invasion. Picture: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
The Russian navy's missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov sails off for an exercise in the Arctic. Russia has launched a series of drills amid the tensions over Ukraine and deployed an estimated 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian territory that fueled Western fears of an invasion. Picture: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Nato is monitoring a task group of Russian ships travelling through the Norwegian Sea towards Ireland to participate in a live-fire exercise off the south coast.

A nuclear-powered submarine is among the group of ships due to conduct military drills in the waters 240km from the Cork coastline.

Reports have suggested that the vessels on their way toward Irish waters are carrying anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine systems.

The exercise is said to be Russia seeking to show Europe that its military is capable of conducting operations on its western sea borders.

 - Reuters

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