Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dampened hopes for a breakthrough as they gathered early Friday in Geneva, Switzerland — the culmination of a diplomatic scramble across Europe in a bid to ward off a potentially devastating new conflict.
After they met for about 90 minutes, each diplomat spoke separately to the press about their discussion. Blinken said their conversation was "frank and substantive" and that it was not a negotiation, but a "candid exchange of concerns and ideas."
Blinken said Lavrov repeated Friday that Russia has "no intention of invading Ukraine," but added that it is "deeds and actions, not words, that make the difference." He said he told Lavrov that if Russia wants to convince the world that it has no intention of aggression toward Ukraine, it should begin by removing Russian forces from Ukraine's borders and continuing to engage in dialogue.
If Russia military forces move into Ukraine, Blinken warned, the U.S. and its allies would engage in a "swift, severe and a united response."
Both diplomats said the U.S. and Russia will exchange ideas and concerns in writing next week. Blinken said he will return to Washington on Friday afternoon to consult with President Joe Biden, the White House national security team and members of Congress.
The United States has voiced growing concerns that a Russian invasion could be imminent. The Kremlin has massed as many as 100,000 troops on Kyiv's doorstep, but repeatedly denied planning to invade.
Previous talks achieved little progress, with the U.S. and its NATO allies dismissing demands from Moscow about the Western alliance's relationship with Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
“We don’t expect to resolve our differences here today. But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy or dialogue remains open,” Blinken told Lavrov ahead of the meeting. “This is a critical moment.”
Lavrov, meanwhile, said he did not “expect a breakthrough at these negotiations either. What we expect is concrete answers to our concrete proposals.”
The U.S. and its allies have sought to present a united front, warning of “severe” consequences including harsh economic sanctions.
But there have been signs of divisions within the transatlantic alliance over how to respond to Russian aggression.
Biden came under fire for making a distinction between a “minor incursion” and a full-blown attack, suggesting a smaller-scale Russian operation may receive a milder response.
“It depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do,” the president said at a news conference Wednesday to mark a year in office.
Biden also predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade. “My guess is he will move in, he has to do something.”
His comments drew quick criticism from Washington to Kyiv, with some accusing the president of giving Russia the go-ahead to launch an attack.
Biden sought to clarify his comments on Thursday, saying that any Russian troop movement into Ukraine would be seen as an invasion.
And Blinken similarly emphasized the Western commitment to defending Ukraine.
“We have been very clear throughout if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our allies and partners,” he told reporters Thursday.
After meeting with Ukraine’s president in Kyiv and top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin this week, Blinken faced Lavrov for a possible last-ditch effort at dialogue.
Russia wants binding security guarantees, including a permanent prohibition on Ukrainian membership in NATO and the removal of most of the U.S. and allied military presence in eastern Europe.
The U.S. and its European partners say they are willing to consider certain less-dramatic gestures but that the Russian demands are out of the question and that Putin knows they are nonstarters.