WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. had formally responded to Russia’s security demands in a letter he described as a “serious diplomatic path forward” to de-escalating threats against Ukraine.
Blinken said that there had been "no change" in the Biden administration's position that NATO maintains its open-door policy for countries to join the alliance. The Kremlin had demanded that Ukraine be prohibited from joining NATO.
"NATO's door is open, remains open and that is our commitment," Blinken said at a news conference at the State Department headquarters in Washington.
Blinken did not offer specifics about the response, which he said won't be released publicly, because the U.S. wants to give it the space for diplomacy to succeed and prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. President Joe Biden was "intimately involved" in crafting the letter, which also included input from European allies. Blinken said it contains the concerns of the U.S., Ukraine and its allies that Russia's actions could undermine security. It also reiterates the Biden administration's commitment to upholding Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and the "right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances."
The secretary of state, however, said that the response is "not a formal negotiations document" and does not include "explicit proposals."
"The ball is in their court," Blinken said about Moscow. "It remains up to Russia how to decide to respond. We're ready either way."
The document came in response to a string of security demands that Russia made last month, including a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO and the rollback of the alliance’s military deployments in Eastern Europe.
Blinken said he will brief Congress about the document Wednesday afternoon and that he plans to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days.
Speaking about Americans who are currently in Ukraine, Blinken said that the State Department is now strongly encouraging them to leave the country via commercial or other privately available options. He said that these transportation options are "readily available" and that the U.S. embassy may extend loans to people who can't afford a commercial ticket.
Blinken warned that the State Department tries to provide consular services wherever possible, but said Russian military action would "severely impact our ability to perform that work."
"If Russia invades, civilians — including Americans still in Ukraine — could be caught in a conflict zone between combatant forces. The U.S. government may not be in a position to aid individuals in these circumstances," he said.
Before Blinken's remarks Wednesday, Russia warned it would take "retaliatory measures" if its demands are not met and dismissed new Western threats of sanctions as the Kremlin showed no signs of backing down in the standoff over Ukraine.
While Moscow has deployed more forces to its neighbor's frontier and held new military drills, the U.S. is stepping up efforts to support European allies and counter the Russian threats.
Biden said he would consider personal sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin, Washington worked to help shield Europe from a potential energy crisis, and a U.S. plane carrying military equipment and munitions landed in Kyiv on Tuesday.
Russia has repeatedly denied planning to invade Ukraine and has blamed the West for stoking tensions.
Biden said Tuesday he would consider personal sanctions on Putin if Russia invades, a sign of the measures being considered by the U.S. and its allies in an effort to ward off a potentially devastating new conflict in Europe.
Such sanctions would not hurt Putin but would be “politically destructive,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said Wednesday after Britain signaled it would also not rule them out.
Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops near its shared border with Ukraine and in Belarus, where it deployed fighter jets on Wednesday ahead of joint drills next month. The buildup of forces has sparked fears of an imminent invasion that could come from multiple fronts.
Russia is holding a series of military drills throughout its territory this week, with new exercises on Wednesday by its Northern fleet in the Arctic as well as in the southern Rostov region, not far from the Ukrainian border.
Putin continues to enlarge Russia's military presence near the country's borders with Ukraine, as American and Western intelligence agencies see an increasing likelihood of an incursion over the next few weeks, intelligence and defense officials told NBC News Wednesday.
A U.S. defense official and a Western intelligence official said they counted 62 Russian battalion tactical groups in the area, up from 59 at this time last week, with several more on the way. Russian forces conducting exercises in Belarus are also in a position to join any military action.
The fresh Russian activity, being watched warily across the West, came just days after NATO announced it would place forces on standby and reinforce eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets.
Biden reiterated Tuesday that he had “no intention” of moving U.S. forces into Ukraine after Washington put 8,500 troops on heightened alert Monday to assist with the defense of NATO allies in case of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
In a further effort to shore up the position of European countries if conflict breaks out, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the Biden administration was in talks with major energy-producing countries and companies around the world over a potential diversion of supplies to Europe.
The European Union is heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supplies, prompting fears Europe could be left facing an even greater energy crisis should Moscow decide to cut off supplies as leverage.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the tensions have so far failed to reach a breakthrough.
In an address to the Russian Parliament on Wednesday, Lavrov, the foreign minister, said Moscow would not allow its security proposals to be “wrapped up in endless discussions."
“If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” he said, accusing Russia's rivals of being caught up in a "military frenzy" and wanting "some kind of provocation."
Against the backdrop of escalating tensions, political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were due to meet in Paris Wednesday to revive stalled discussions around how to resolve the long-simmering conflict in Ukraine’s east between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists.
While the West continued to voice fears a Russian invasion could be imminent, Ukrainian officials sought to play down the threat.
The decision by several countries including the U.S. to withdraw families of diplomatic staff from Kyiv “doesn’t necessarily signal an inevitable escalation,” Zelenskyy said.