Talks in Stockholm between the US and Russia’s top diplomats appear to have done little to ease tensions over Ukraine, amid fears that Vladimir Putin is preparing to launch an invasion.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov opted not to make a joint appearance after trading threats during a 40-minute meeting whose short duration indicated there was little chance of a breakthrough.
The US has threatened to deploy “high-impact economic measures” if a Russian buildup of an estimated 100,000 troops leads to a larger conflict with Ukraine. Moscow has said that it feels threatened by Nato’s close relationship with Kyiv.
In a bellicose statement following the talks, Russia’s foreign ministry threatened to take “retaliatory measures” if its interests were ignored. “Ignoring Russia’s legitimate concerns, Ukraine’s involvement in US geopolitical games amid the deployment of Nato forces near our borders will have the most serious consequences, and will force Moscow to take retaliatory measures to level the military and strategic balance,” the ministry wrote.
US spokesman Ned Price said: “Should Moscow choose the path of military escalation, [Blinken] made clear that the United States and our allies are prepared to impose significant costs.”
The talks came after Blinken told the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, that Nato had an “unwavering commitment … to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty, its independence”.
Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, also met Lavrov in Stockholm, where she expressed “concern about rising tensions across Europe”, as she “restated the UK’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, urging the Russian government to deescalate the situation,” according to a Foreign Office readout.
Lavrov appeared defiant before the talks, telling the press that “eastward enlargement” of Nato would “definitely affect our fundamental security interests”.
The talks, which were held on the sidelines of an OSCE ministerial meeting in Stockholm, are the highest-profile negotiations between Russia and the US since Putin and Joe Biden met in Geneva in June. Biden has also dispatched his CIA director, William Burns, to Moscow several times to tell Russia not to launch a new offensive in Ukraine.
Russia is seeking another presidential summit with the US in which Putin has said he will demand guarantees that Nato will limit its support of Ukraine, a non-member that is allied with the security bloc. Jens Stoltenberg, the head of Nato, has said that Russia has no veto on Ukraine joining the military alliance.
On Thursday, a Russian foreign ministry official said he hoped Biden and Putin would speak directly within the next few days. The US has not confirmed that it is ready to hold another presidential summit, which may be viewed as a concession to Putin.
The US and its Nato allies have threatened a resolute response if Russia launches an attack, with Blinken threatening to deploy “high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from pursuing in the past”.
Those could target Russia’s new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, access to the Swift bank messaging system, or threaten other sectoral sanctions against the Russian economy.
Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and has fuelled a war against Kyiv in south-east Ukraine that has left more than 13,000 people dead.
In separate remarks before Thursday’s talks, Blinken called on Russia “to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to de-escalate, reverse the recent troop buildup, return forces to normal peaceful positions, and to implement the Minsk [peace deal] commitments”.
Diplomacy was the only way to resolve the crisis, he said, urging both Moscow and Kyiv to follow the 2015 Minsk deal that has looked close to collapse in recent months.
Blinken said: “It takes two to tango, and if – if our Russian friends are prepared to implement their commitments under Minsk and our Ukrainian friends are as well, we will fully support that, and that is the best way to avert a renewed crisis in Ukraine.”
Russia said separately on Thursday that it had detained three Ukrainian spies, including one who had allegedly been planning an attack with explosives. The FSB domestic intelligence agency did not say where or when it had detained the Ukrainians. It said two of the alleged spies – a father and son – were agents of Ukraine’s SBU security service who had “travelled to Russia to collect information and take photographs and videos of strategically important enterprises and objects of transport infrastructure”. The SBU said the accusation was “fake” and part of a “hybrid war” effort.