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US responds to Russia's demands and doesn't yield on Ukraine and NATO: What to know

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The United States on Wednesday gave Russia the answers to its demands regarding Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a written reply has been sent to the Kremlin.

The letter, which will not be made public, “states very clearly the principles that we’re committed to and that we will defend, one way or another,” he said. The letter also includes ways the administration believes NATO can collaborate with Russia on international security "if they're serious," Blinken said.

Russia has demanded guarantees that NATO never admit Ukraine and other former Soviet nations as members and that the alliance roll back troop deployments in other former Soviet bloc countries, a region Moscow still views as its sphere of interest.

Blinken said the document has direct responses to Russia’s stipulations. He did not outline each reply in detail but reiterated that NATO would not abandon its open-door policy for any nation to join, a key demand the Kremlin wanted the U.S. to abandon.

More: How US and its allies could respond to Russian invasion of Ukraine

While awaiting the U.S. reply, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier on Wednesday issued a stark warning as some NATO members have announced military movements and the U.S. has put troops on alert for possible deployment. Russia has more than 100,000 troops gathered at the borders of its former Soviet neighbor.

"If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” Lavrov said Wednesday.

The stark language came as officials from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were holding negotiations Wednesday in Paris, called the “Normandy format." That tactic helped ease hostilities in 2015 after Russia's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Here's what we know about the showdown in Ukraine:

Blinken: Decision is now Russia's on how to respond to US reply

In a news briefing Wednesday, Blinken said the letter sent to the Kremlin presents security concerns the U.S. and European nations have with not just the immediate Russian military escalation on Ukraine’s border “but more broadly in the European theater that we believe undermines security.”

Blinken said President Joe Biden was “intimately involved” in the writing of the U.S. response, as were NATO allies and Ukrainian leaders.

The secretary said the administration will not release the document publicly because “we think that diplomacy has the best chance to succeed if we provide space for confidential talks,” adding that he hoped Moscow shared the administration's sentiment.

Blinken concluded by saying that “the ball is in their court” and that whether the Kremlin chooses “diplomacy and dialogue” or “aggression against Ukraine, we’re prepared either way.”

– Matthew Brown

On the ground: 'We've seen what war can do': Ukrainians on high alert over feared Russia invasion

US Embassy in Ukraine urges Americans to leave country

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine is urging Americans in the country leave, citing the threat of Russian invasion.

The embassy called the situation in the eastern European country “unpredictable due to the increased threat of Russian military action and can deteriorate with little notice” in a statement posted to its website. The embassy urged U.S. citizens to “consider departing Ukraine now.”

The U.S., United Kingdom and Canada have all urged the families of diplomats to leave the country. Though most U.S. Embassy staff remain in the country, the move was criticized by some Ukrainian and European officials, who called it premature.

The State Department is not funding the evacuation of Americans in Ukraine, instead urging U.S. citizens to take advantage of commercial flights and ground transportation out of the country.

– Matthew Brown

Ukrainian officials criticize Germany for sending helmets as military aid

Ukrainian leaders slammed Berlin for promising to ship 5,000 combat helmets to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany called the move a “purely symbolic gesture,” and the mayor of Kyiv dismissed the move as “a joke” that left him “speechless.”

Germany has come under criticism from leaders in several NATO countries for not contributing more to the military alliance’s mobilization efforts. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said the helmets are “equipment that is needed” in Ukraine.

By contrast, the United States and the United Kingdom have sent more than $1 billion in weapons to Ukraine while NATO members such as Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Spain have moved to station forces in the military alliance’s eastern members, like Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s not even a consolation prize,” Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk told DPA, a German news agency.

– Matthew Brown

German Chancellor Scholz to visit White House amid friction over Ukraine

President Joe Biden is preparing to welcome German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the White House in February as the country remains at odds with NATO allies over what tougher measures to take against Russia in the standoff on Ukraine's eastern border.

Germany has resisted calls to join allies in providing weapons to help Ukraine defend itself against a buildup of Russian troops near the border, citing its post-World War II policy of restricting arms exports to conflict zones. The country has also halted a shipment of old German howitzers from Estonia to Kyiv as the U.S. has moved to put 8,500 troops on "high alert" to deploy to the region while other NATO allies step up military support for eastern flank countries.

Though Scholz and other German officials have warned of grave consequences should Russian forces move into Ukraine, Berlin's reluctance has irked some NATO allies and raised questions about the country's commitment to economic sanctions should Russia invade.

One big question is whether Berlin would scrap the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested the pipeline, which is completed but not yet commissioned, would be paused if Russia invades, but German officials have yet to explicitly confirm that as a consequence.

Strained relations spilled into public view last week when the head of the Germany navy, Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schonbach, resigned after suggesting Ukraine would never regain control of Crimea and Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved "respect."

The U.S. has worked to mend the divisions exposed by the deepening crisis in Ukraine. Blinken stopped in Berlin before his meeting with Russian counterpart in Geneva last week, and Biden held a call with European leaders Monday in which he said there was "total unanimity" in the strategy to respond to a possible Russian incursion.

– Courtney Subramanian

Kremlin denounces direct sanctions on Putin as 'destructive'

The Kremlin denounced the prospect of the U.S. personally sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin as "not painful (but) politically destructive" rhetoric that would ultimately have no effect on Putin’s financial or physical well-being.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said he’d consider sanctioning Putin personally should he decide to invade Ukraine. The Biden administration has promised harsh economic sanctions and economic embargoes Russia should the Kremlin send forces into Ukraine.

The U.S. often sanctions senior officials or companies in governments it opposes without hurting the respective country’s public.

– Matthew Brown

Biden: US would increase presence in eastern Europe if Ukraine invaded

President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday that he’d “feel obliged to beef up our presence” in eastern Europe should Russian President Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine. He reiterated while the U.S. has “no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine” under any circumstance.

Biden continued that there would be “serious economic consequences” for Russia should Putin decide to invade. The U.S. has planned a series of stringent sanctions that would seek to bar Russia from international financial systems, as well as access to components needed to advance cutting-edge technology.

Biden stressed that it was important to make sure no NATO member “worry whether or not we would … come to their defense.”

– Matthew Brown

Ukraine downplays Russia's presence

Ukrainian officials have sought to calm nerves as tensions escalate.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday that while the concentration of Russian troops near Ukraine poses a threat, “their number is now insufficient for a large-scale offensive.”

“They are still missing some key military elements and systems to mount a big, full-scale offensive,” Kuleba told reporters.

He also noted that causing alarm could be an end in itself. Russia, he said, hopes to destabilize Ukraine by “spreading panic, raising pressure on Ukraine’s financial system and launching cyberattacks.”

– The Associated Press

More: What are Joe Biden's options with Russia in Ukraine? That all depends on Putin's next move.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US replies to Russian demands on Ukraine: What we know

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