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US, Russia try to end Ukraine crisis

GENEVA (AP) — The United States and Russia sought to lower the temperature in a heated standoff over Ukraine, even as they reported no breakthroughs in high-stakes talks on Friday aimed at preventing a feared Russian invasion.

Armed with seemingly intractable and diametrically opposed demands, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva for roughly 90 minutes at what the American said was a “critical moment.”

But there was no apparent movement on either side. Blinken said the U.S. and its allies remain resolute in rejecting Russia’s most important demands, which were laid out in writing in two proposals last month, and reiterated on Friday. Moscow wants NATO to promise that Ukraine will never be added as a member, that no alliance weapons will be deployed near Russian borders, and that it pull back its forces from

Central and Eastern Europe. Blinken told Lavrov the U.S. would give Russia written responses to Moscow’s proposals next week and suggested the two would likely meet again shortly after that — possibly delaying any invasion for at least a few more days. Despite that, there was no indication the U.S. responses would be any different from the flat-out rejections already expressed publicly by Washington and its allies, clouding future diplomatic efforts.

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine, many fear Moscow is preparing an invasion although Russia denies that. The U.S. and its allies are scrambling to present a united front to prevent that or coordinate a tough response if they can’t.

“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clearer path to understanding each other’s positions,” Blinken said after the meeting.

Blinken said Lavrov repeated Russia’s insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, but the U.S. and its allies were not convinced.

“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, adding that Russia should remove its troops from the Ukrainian border if it wanted to prove its point.

Lavrov, meanwhile, called the talks “constructive and useful” but declined to characterize the U.S. pledge.

“I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not,” he told reporters. “We will understand that when we receive the U.S. written response to all of our proposals.”

Blinken suggested there was no leeway on Russia’s demands, saying firmly: “There is no trade space there: None.”

The U.S. and its allies say Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the demands are nonstarters, adding that they’re open to less- dramatic moves.

Blinken said the U.S. would be open to a meeting between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden, if it would be “useful and productive.” The two have met once in person in Geneva and have had several virtual conversations on Ukraine that have proven largely inconclusive.

Washington and its allies have repeatedly promised consequences such as biting economic sanctions against Russia — though not military action — if it invades. Blinken repeated that Friday, saying the U.S. and its allies were committed to diplomacy but also committed “if that proves impossible, and Russia decides to pursue aggression against Ukraine, to a united, swift and severe response.”

But he said he also wanted to use the opportunity to share directly with Lavrov some “concrete ideas to address some of the concerns that you have raised, as well as the deep concerns that many of us have about Russia’s actions.”

Amid the diplomacy, more Russian troops were moving into the neighborhood for training exercises with neighboring Belarus, while Western allies were supplying weaponry and equipment to Ukraine.

“No one is hiding the fact that weapons are being handed over to Ukraine; that hundreds of military instructors are flocking to Ukraine right now,” Lavrov said. Russia has accused the West of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine, citing weapons deliveries there by Britain.

In other diplomatic moves, President Sauli Niinistö of Finland said he spoke with Putin by phone on European security and Ukraine, saying it was “imperative to preserve peace in Europe,” according to his office.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of NATO member Turkey, which touted its strong ties with Russia and Ukraine, renewed an offer to mediate between the two countries. Erdogan said he plans to visit Kyiv next month, adding that he would also hold talks with Putin.

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