US assures nervous Baltics of NATO protection against Russia

US rejects Russia demand on Ukraine but talks see new life


WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday rejected a key Russian demand to ban Ukraine from NATO, saying it believed Moscow was ready to invade but offered a new “diplomatic avenue” out of the crisis.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he will speak again in the coming days with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is meeting in Geneva on Friday, as another French initiative has Moscow pledging to at least continue with Ukrainian Government Dialogue.

A month later, Russia made sweeping security recommendations, sending tens of thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border, and the United States responded in coordination with NATO allies, saying it was prepared for any eventuality.

“It sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it,” Blinken told reporters of the US response, which he said would remain confidential.

He renewed an offer on “reciprocal” measures to address mutual security concerns including reductions of missiles in Europe and transparency on military drills and Western aid to Ukraine.

But he made clear that the United States would not budge on Russia s core demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, the US-backed military alliance.

“From our perspective, I can t be more clear — NATO s door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment,” Blinken said.

Russia, which has a complicated historical relationship with Ukraine, has fueled an insurgency in the eastern former Soviet republic that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Russia also occupied Crimea that year after Kiev overthrew a government that refused to move closer to Europe.

The United States has warned of severe and swift consequences if Russia invades, including possible personal sanctions on President Vladimir Putin, while NATO has placed 8,500 troops on standby.

“While we are hoping for and working for a good solution — de-escalation — we are also prepared for the worst,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Blinken s deputy Wendy Sherman, who led a previous round of talks with Russia, said Putin seemed ready to invade despite the US warnings.

“I have no idea whether he s made the ultimate decision, but we certainly see every indication that he is going to use military force sometime perhaps (between) now and the middle of February,” Sherman told a forum.

Putin may be waiting, she said, so as not to overshadow the Winter Olympics, which kick off Feb. 4 in Beijing, with the Russian leader due to diplomatic resistance from the United States and several of its allies.

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