Ukraine-Russia crisis: Moscow would face severe response to invasion, warns Blinken as talks end

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Moscow would face a “swift, severe and a united response” if it invaded Ukraine, US secretary of state Antony Blinken warned as talks with Russia’s foreign minister broke up with no breakthroughs.

The pair agreed to keep up diplomatic contacts, and Mr Blinken described the talks with Sergei Lavrov as frank and useful.

He said Washington had agreed to provide a written response to Russia over its demands for a pledge that Ukraine will never join Nato.

Russia has bolstered its military deployment on the border with Ukraine to 106,000 troops, as well as air and sea power, according to western and Ukrainian officials.

Mr Blinken said Mr Lavrov had repeated Russia’s insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine but stressed that the US and its allies were not convinced of that. “We’re looking at what is visible to all, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference,” he said.

Mr Lavrov called the talks “constructive and useful”.

Nato has rejected Russian demands to withdraw its forces from Romania and Bulgaria.

See below for how our coverage unfolded.

Ukraine-Russia latest

08:45 , Shweta Sharma

Good morning and welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

US-Russia to hold urgent talks in Geneva

09:09 , Shweta Sharma

Amid growing fears of Russia invading Ukraine, the US secretary of state and Russian foreign minister are set to hold urgent talks in Geneva on Friday.

Antony Blinken arrived in Geneva for talks with Russian minister Sergei Lavrov after a swing through Europe to shore up support from US allies for possible sanctions in case of a full-scale invasion.

Mr Blinken held discussions in Berlin with top diplomats of Britain, France and Germany and raised fears that Mr Putin could order an invasion imminently.

He suggested that the possible incursion will “drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent, and this city, were divided in two... with the threat of all-out war hanging over everyone’s heads”.

According to State Department officials, Mr Blinken will offer Mr Lavrov a “diplomatic off-ramp”.

Ukraine says Russia secretly recruiting mercenaries, weapons to eastern region

09:21 , Shweta Sharma

Ukraine’s military intelligence on Friday said Moscow has been actively recruiting mercenaries and sending weapons to the restive, separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine.

In a statement, the country’s military intelligence agency said Russia was sending mercenaries for intensive training in the area.

It added that weapons including several tanks, artillery, mortars as well as fuel had been secretly taken to the area from Russia.

Service members attend a ceremony in tribute to fallen defenders of Ukraine in Kyiv (via REUTERS)
Service members attend a ceremony in tribute to fallen defenders of Ukraine in Kyiv (via REUTERS)

Europeans are 'united' on Ukraine crisis: Spain's foreign minister

09:45 , Shweta Sharma

Putting weight behind Ukraine, Spain’s foreign minister Jose Manuel Albares said Europeans have a united stance on the crisis situation in the country as Russia threatens invasion.

“Let’s give dialogue a chance. That is what Spain is pushing for. If dialogue does not bear fruit, of course, Spain will stand with its European partners and its Nato allies united in deterrence,” he said on Friday in Madrid.

His statement came as Spain has sent warships to join Nato naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, defence minister Margarita Robles said.

Biden’s ‘minor incursion’ remark sparks concerns of Ukraine president

09:59 , Shweta Sharma

Joe Biden has said he thinks Russia will make a move on Ukraine, warning Moscow it would face a “stiff price” for an attack yet suggesting that a “minor incursion” might be treated differently by the US and its allies.

The US president’s comments at a White House news conference on Wednesday injected uncertainty into how the West would respond should Russian President Vladimir Putin order an invasion of Ukraine.

Alexandra Alper has more details.

Biden predicts Russia will attack Ukraine but warns Putin of a ‘stiff price’

Russia ‘not afraid of US’, deputy foreign minister says

10:20 , Shweta Sharma

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Friday that Russia is not “afraid of anyone, even not of the US”.

His response came in response to CBS News’s questions which asked if Russia was intimidated by Ukraine.Mr Ryabkob arrived in Geneva on Friday for a meeting with top US diplomats, including US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

Ahead of the highly anticipated meeting, the Kremlin said Mr Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are meeting to take stock of the talks so far over the Ukraine situation and Russian officials are not expecting the US to hand over the formal reply to Russia’s proposal yet.

Moscow has sought a written reply from Washington to its demands on security guarantees.

Lavrov-Blinken meeting begins in Geneva

10:29 , Shweta Sharma

Blinken hails Geneva talks as 'critical moment'

10:37 , Shweta Sharma

In his opening statement for highly anticipated talks in Geneva with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington does not expect to resolve its differences with Russia over Ukraine at talks in Geneva on Friday.

“This is a critical moment. You’re right: We don’t expect to resolve our differences here today,” Mr Blinken.

“But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy, of dialogue, remains open. We’re committed to walking that path, to resolving our differences peacefully and I hope to test that proposition today,” Mr Blinken added.

Lavrov demands ‘concrete answers’ to proposal in Geneva

11:14 , Shweta Sharma

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov echoed Antony Blinken’s remarks that Moscow did not “expect a breakthrough at these negotiations either”.

But what Russia expects is “concrete answers to our concrete proposals”, he said.

Moscow has demanded a written answer to their proposal calling for concessions from Nato over the western alliance’s relationship with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday laid out its planned agenda for the meeting: texts of two proposals by Moscow for new treaties with both the United States and Nato on security guarantees.

 (AP)
(AP)

Why would Russia invade Ukraine?

11:30 , Shweta Sharma

With 100,000 Russian troops stationed near the Ukrainian border, fears are growing that president Vladimir Putin will decide to invade.

The threat comes eight years after Russia annexed Crimea and sparked fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where a low-level conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people, is still rumbling on between Kyiv and separatists.

The Independent’s Rory Sullivan details why would Russia invade Ukraine:

Why would Russia invade Ukraine?

Blinken demands release of two US citizens held in Russia

11:42 , Shweta Sharma

Antony Blinken has demanded the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, two US citizens detained in Russia, during the talks with his Russian counterpart in Geneva.

The US secretary of state raised the cases and repeated Washington’s call for their release during his talks with Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

The two American tourists were arrested and convicted in Russia without credible evidence, Mr Blinken said.“We again ask Russia to do the right thing and let them come home,” he added.

Whelan, who holds US, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was convicted of spying in June 2020 by a Russian court. He was sentenced to 16 years in jail.

Reed was sentenced to nine years in jail after he was found guilty of endangering the lives of two policemen in Moscow in an inebriated condition in 2019.

Both deny any wrongdoing and remain in Russian prison.

Russia invites British defence minister to Moscow

12:03 , Shweta Sharma

As the UK continues to mount pressure on Russia amid the threat of invasion of Ukraine, the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has invited his British counterpart Ben Wallace to visit Moscow.

The invitation was to hold talks on security and easing tensions in Europe, the Interfax news agency cited the ministry as saying on Friday.

This week, Mr Wallace had extended a similar invitation to Mr Shoigu, inviting him to visit London to discuss issues related to mutual security concerns amid a standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine and its Nato aspirations.

West would punish Russia, No 10 warns

12:32 , Jane Dalton

The west would punish Russia if it took any “destabilising action” in Ukraine, Downing Street says.

A spokesman for Boris Johnson said the prime minister welcomed today’s talks, adding: “I think that the Prime Minister has been clear that any destabilising action by Russia in Ukraine would be a strategic mistake and would have significant consequences.

“I’ve talked about the fact that we’re working closely with our partners, including the US, to draw up a package of sweeping measures to make sure that the Russian government is punished if it crosses the line.”

‘I think there will be a war’: Ukrainians wait for the worst

13:00 , Jane Dalton

People in Ukraine have been living under the shadow of war for years and there had been a feeling among many that the worst predictions will not come through. But that appears to be changing, at least among some.

One resident warned: “People in Europe cannot see how serious things are becoming. But it will affect other countries as well.”

Another said: “I never thought it was over when I returned to Kyiv after the last war and the Russian occupation. They had the Minsk agreement and all that, but there was always fighting, killing going on.” Our world affairs editor Kim Sengupta explains why some people think war is inevitable:

‘I think there will be a war’: Ukrainians wait for worst as diplomats talk

US ‘due to respond to Russia’s demands next week'

13:11 , Jane Dalton

The threat of war on Ukraine’s border may have been delayed by a few days as Washington is thought to have agreed to provide written responses to Russian demands next week.

Russia’s foreign minister called the talks in Geneva “constructive and useful” but said: “I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not.”

Sergei Lavrov said the US had pledged to give a response to Russian demands on whether Ukraine would join Nato.

Holly Bancroft reports:

Ukraine: US and Russia hold ‘constructive’ talks but fears of war remain

Russia and US could hold more talks next month

13:20 , Jane Dalton

Russia and the United States could hold another meeting next month to discuss Moscow’s demands for security guarantees, Russia’s RIA news agency quoted a source in the Russian delegation as saying after talks in Geneva.

The source reportedly said Moscow could take a few weeks to study Washington’s response to its demands, which it expects to receive next week.

No breakthroughs in talks, says Blinken

13:25 , Jane Dalton

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said he does not expect any breakthroughs in talks with Russia on Ukraine, but that the two sides are on a “clearer path” to understanding each other’s concerns.

He said Sergei Lavrov repeated Russia’s insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine but stressed that the US and its allies were not convinced of that.“We’re looking at what is visible to all, and it is deeds and actions and not words that make all the difference,” Mr Blinken said.

Key talks break up

14:06 , Jane Dalton

Talks between Mr Blinken and Mr Lavrov have broken up after 90 minutes with no clear breakthroughs.

There was no apparent movement on either side, and the US secretary of state said the west remained resolute in rejecting Russia’s most important demands.But he told Mr Lavrov that the US would present Russia with written responses to its proposals next week and suggested the two men would be likely to meet again shortly after that.

Warm welcome for Blinken in Kiev

14:42 , Jane Dalton

Staff at the US embassy in Ukraine gave Antony Blinken a warm reception when he visited, saying any “response to Moscow’s aggression demands unity”.

16:13 , Jane Dalton

Russia must choose diplomacy or conflict, says Blinken

15:00 , Jane Dalton

Both sides said they were open to further dialogue as the Geneva talks broke up, and Mr Blinken said he saw grounds to hope that mutual security concerns could be addressed.

“Based on the conversations we’ve had - the extensive conversations - over the past week and today here in Geneva, I think there are grounds for and a means to address some of the mutual concerns that we have about security,” the US secretary of state said.

He described the talks as “frank and substantive”, saying said Russia now faced a choice.

“It can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security, or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation,” Mr Blinken said, adding that diplomacy would be preferable.

“We’ve been clear - if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine‘s border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies.”

Ball in US court, says Russia

15:15 , Jane Dalton

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the ball was in Washington’s court.

He said Russia had worries of its own, “not about invented threats, but real facts that no one hides - pumping Ukraine with weapons, sending hundreds of western military instructors”.

Asked about the possibility of a summit between President Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden, Lavrov was circumspect.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “President Putin is always ready for contacts with President Biden, it’s clear these contacts need to be seriously prepared.”

Why Russia wants to block Ukraine from joining Nato

15:55 , Jane Dalton

Ever since 1990, Vladimir Putin has nurtured a grudge against what he sees as Nato’s gradual extension eastwards, keen to foster anti-western sentiment at home and consolidate his power base.

He claims the alliance is a provocation, and with the invasion of Georgia, which had openly courted membership, he humiliated the country’s leader. This analysis from Joe Sommerlad:

Why does Russia want to block Ukraine from joining Nato?

Moscow wants Nato withdrawal from Romania and Bulgaria

16:13 , Jane Dalton

Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow was seeking the withdrawal of Nato forces and weapons from Romania and Bulgaria.

Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov responded by telling parliament: “Bulgaria is a sovereign country, which made its choice long ago by becoming a Nato member.” Holly Bancroft reports:

Ukraine: US and Russia hold ‘constructive’ talks but fears of war remain

Baltic states to send missiles to Ukraine

16:35 , Jane Dalton

Nato members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will provide Ukraine with US-made anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles, their defence ministers have said in a joint statement.

“Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and their allies are working together expeditiously to hand over the security assistance to Ukraine,” the statement said.

Estonia will send Javelin anti-armour missiles, and Latvia and Lithuania will send Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

The US State Department has cleared Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to send US-made missiles and other weapons to Ukraine, three sources said on Wednesday.

Occupying Kharkiv would be start of large-scale war – Zelenskiy

16:58 , Jane Dalton

Russia may try to occupy the industrial city of Kharkiv if it takes military action in Ukraine, which would be the start of a “large-scale war”, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told The Washington Post.

Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, is the former Soviet republic’s second biggest city and lies 26 miles from the border.

“I will say realistically if Russia decides to enhance their escalation, of course they are going to do this on those territories where historically there are people who used to have family links to Russia,” Zelenskiy said.

“Kharkiv, which is under Ukraine government control, could be occupied. Russia needs a pretext: They will say that they are protecting the Russian-speaking population.”

He said he believed this scenario was feasible following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“It’s not going to be just an occupation; it’s going to be the beginning of a large-scale war,” he said.

Russia, which has tens of thousands of troops near the border, has denied it plans to attack Ukraine.

Kharkiv, which has a population of about 1.4 million, was the capital of Ukraine from 1919 to 1933, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and is home to tank and tractor factories, as well as electronics producers.

Canada offers Ukraine £70m loan

17:25 , Jane Dalton

Canada will offer Ukraine a loan of up to C$120million (£70m) and is looking at other ways to support Kyiv, the country’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.

“Russia is aiming to destabilise Ukraine, including economically. This loan will help support Ukraine‘s economic resilience,” Mr Trudeau said.

“(It) is one of the top things that the Ukrainian government has been asking for from Canada.”

Mr Trudeau reiterated his condemnation of Russia’s moves to build up troops near the Ukrainian border, saying “any movement of Russian troops into Ukraine will be absolutely unacceptable and met with a clear response from the international community”.

Ottawa is also exploring other options to provide financial and other supports, he said, but sidestepped questions about whether Canada would send weapons to Ukraine.

Russia ‘has a choice'

17:45 , Jane Dalton

Antony Blinken has reiterated that Russia has a choice, saying the US preferred diplomacy.

US considers evacuating diplomats’ families

17:53 , Jane Dalton

The US is considering evacuating the families of diplomats from Ukraine, Bloomberg News reports.

Family members would have to return home and non-essential employees would have the option to leave Ukraine, it said. A source told the outlet that the announcement could come within days.

About 180 Americans and 560 Ukrainians work for the embassy in Kyiv, not including their family members. Eric Garcia reports:

United States weighing evacuating diplomats’ families from Ukraine

Next steps in diplomacy

18:20 , Jane Dalton

Here is what to look out for next in the Ukraine crisis. Summary from Reuters:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US side would respond in writing next week to a set of security proposals that Russia presented in December, including a demand to bar Ukraine from ever joining Nato. A formal rejection could provide Russia with a pretext to move ahead with the unspecified military response it has threatened. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of political analysis firm R.Politik, said Moscow needed a written US reply “as cast-iron proof of a refusal to provide Russia with security guarantees. This is partly a trap, of course, because any such written response will be used to discredit the U.S. negotiating position”.

In the past week, Russia has moved troops and equipment thousands of miles from its far east region to Belarus to take part in what it calls joint exercises. As Belarus borders Ukraine, this opens a new front for a potential Russian attack and ensures that diplomacy in the coming weeks will take place against the background of an ongoing show of Russian military force.

Russia’s parliament will hold consultations next week on an idea to appeal to Putin to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states. That would be a major escalation that would kill off diplomatic efforts and could serve as a legal pretext for Putin to send in troops to “protect” Russians there from Ukraine. Officially the Kremlin has reacted coolly to the parliamentary proposal so far, but it adds to Putin’s available options and keeps the West guessing as to his true intentions. Tension remains high in and around the breakaway regions, where the United States has said Russia is plotting acts of provocation to create a pretext for invasion. Russia accuses Ukraine of planning to retake the areas by force, which it denies.

The French and German foreign ministers are expected to visit eastern Ukraine in a further show of solidarity with Kyiv. French President Emmanuel Macron said the European Union, which has been largely sidelined in the crisis, should open its own track of diplomacy with Moscow. And Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan says he wants to bring together the Ukrainian and Russian presidents and plans to visit Ukraine in early February. Russia, however, says it wants to move fast and is not prepared to let talks drag on indefinitely.

White House briefs Congress on plans to send helicopters

18:32 , Jane Dalton

White House officials say they have told Congress of plans to send Mi-17 helicopters to Ukraine.

The administration will put in writing the serious concerns allies have about Russia’s actions, as well as ideas for how to strengthen the two nations’ sense of security, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

“We have said from the beginning that there are certain proposals that will not be viable,” she said.

When asked whether Joe Biden would meet Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, she said any invasion of Ukraine would be met with “swift and severe consequences” along with allies, but that they were ready to continue diplomacy.

“Of course, the president always values leader-to-leader engagement but we’ll determine if that’s the appropriate next step,” she said. “I can’t give you a prediction of if and when it will happen but if that is a step that is recommended and that we think would be effective at this point in this discussion. Of course the president is always open to leader-to-leader engagement.”

Nato rejects Moscow’s call to withdraw from Romania and Bulgaria

19:01 , Jane Dalton

Nato has rejected Russian demands to withdraw its forces from Romania and Bulgaria as diplomatic efforts continue to prevent a war in Europe.

“Nato will not renounce our ability to protect and defend each other, including with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance,” Nato spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement.

Moscow has demanded legally binding guarantees from the organisation that the bloc will stop its expansion and return to its 1997 borders.

Earlier, the Russian foreign ministry said the security guarantees that Moscow seeks from the west include provisions requiring Nato forces to leave Romania and Bulgaria.

Replying to a question about what that would mean for Bulgaria and Romania, which joined after 1997, the ministry said Russia wanted all foreign troops, weapons and other military hardware withdrawn from those countries.

Nato rebuffed these demands, saying they would create first- and second-class Nato members, which the alliance could not accept.

“We reject any idea of spheres of influence in Europe. We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defence,” the spokesperson said.

“Nato is vigilant and continues to assess the need to reinforce the eastern part of our Alliance.”

Ukraine’s leaders thank US for support

19:20 , Jane Dalton

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he is grateful to Joe Biden for Washington’s “unprecedented” diplomatic and military assistance.

He also welcomed Canada’s loan of C$120m.

Separately, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had spoken to Antony Blinken about this week’s talks with Russia.

“Good to know that diplomatic track of contacts with Russia remains active,” Mr Kuleba tweeted.

Czech Republic considers sending Ukraine ammunition

19:40 , Jane Dalton

The Czech Defence Minister is proposing to send a shipment of artillery ammunition to Ukraine.

Jana Cernochova said the Czech Republic had picked 152-milimetre calibre ammunition from a list of supplies requested by the government in Kiev.

“It would be a donation, we are sorting the procedure so that it can be done as soon as possible. We are saying to Ukraine clearly that we are with them,” she said after meeting with Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky over the matter.

Cernochova said further details on the shipment would be released after the cabinet debates the proposal next Wednesday.

Mr Lipavsky said the Czech Republic was prepared for the “worst-case scenario” in the situation caused by Russia’s “blackmail tactics threatening an invasion of Ukraine“.

‘God save the Queen’ trends in Ukraine

20:00 , Jane Dalton

Ukraine appears to be thankful to the UK for British arms deliveries, if Twitter is anything to go by.

German chancellor denies refusing talks with Biden

20:20 , Jane Dalton

A German government spokesperson has denied a report that chancellor Olaf Scholz had refused an invitation to discuss the Ukraine crisis that came at short notice from US President Joe Biden.

German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Mr Scholz did not accept the invitation due to a full schedule and a desire to show his presence in Germany as it grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the report, both sides hoped to organise a meeting by mid-February.

Germany stops Estonia sending weapons to Ukraine

20:40 , Jane Dalton

Germany is blocking Nato ally Estonia from giving military support to Ukraine by refusing to issue permits for German-origin weapons to be exported to Kyiv as it braces for a potential Russian invasion, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Earlier this week, the US State Department cleared Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to send US-made missiles and other weapons to Ukraine as Joe Biden predicted Russia would move on Ukraine.

Many other Nato allies, including Britain and Poland, also agreed to export weapons directly to Ukraine, but the German government declined to do so.

“Germany has not supported the export of lethal weapons in recent years,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a news conference.

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