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Blinken meets Lavrov as U.S. strives for clearer line on Ukraine

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began security talks Friday after President Joe Biden warned Russia would pay a “heavy price” for any intervention in Ukraine, according to Bloomberg. 

Russia is “grateful” to the U.S. for participating in the security talks and expects to receive a response to its security demands, Lavrov told Blinken at the start of the meeting. 

The two top diplomats are meeting in Geneva after Biden and his aides spent much of Thursday seeking to clarify remarks the president made a day earlier suggesting that the U.S. and Europe were divided over how to respond to a “minor incursion” into Ukraine.

As U.S. officials worked to reassure European allies on their resolve, Biden laid out his clearest line yet on what action would trigger serious punishment. “If any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” he said.

Blinken warned they’ve reached a “decisive juncture” in the crisis over Ukraine, with Russia massing some 100,000 troops near their border. Biden said he’s told Russian President Vladimir Putin “very clearly” that Russia faces severe U.S. and European sanctions if an attack takes place.

“The situation is difficult,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Geneva before the meeting. “The Americans escalating things yesterday doesn’t make it any easier.”

While Russia denies it plans an invasion, President Vladimir Putin is demanding binding security guarantees that would bar Ukraine from ever joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and require the alliance to roll back its forces to positions they held in 1997, before central and eastern European nations joined NATO. The U.S. and its NATO allies rejected those demands.

The meeting allows Blinken and Lavrov to compare their understanding of the results of three sets of talks held earlier this month between Russia and the U.S. and its European allies, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday. Russia expects the U.S. and NATO to provide written responses to its security demands within days, he said.

Russia is continuing a military build-up, sending troops and armor to within a few miles of the Ukrainian border in neighboring Belarus for joint military drills that start February 10. Two divisions of S-400 air-defense systems are also being dispatched to Belarus, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday, according to the Interfax news service.

Europe and the U.S. have been unable to hash out detailed responses to various scenarios that Russia might pursue in Ukraine, and options like sending NATO troops to the country aren’t on the table. The European Union has also shied away from discussing specific sanctions that could be imposed if Russia mounts an invasion.