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The stakes are high as Blinken sits down with his Russian counterpart


The stakes were high today as Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The U.S. and its allies are trying to stave off a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Blinken says Russia has a choice to make.


ANTONY BLINKEN: It can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation.

ELLIOTT: Blinken also traveled to Ukraine and to Germany this week to make sure U.S. allies are on the same page. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has been traveling with him and joins us now. Hi, Michele, what's the big takeaway now? Are there any positive signals coming out of this meeting between Blinken and Lavrov?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, it seems like both sides are ready to continue this dialogue, so that's progress. But there's no real sign of any breakthrough yet and no sign that Russia is willing to pull back the tens of thousands of troops that it has massed along Ukraine's border. Sergey Lavrov said that Russia has no intention to invade Ukraine, though Secretary Blinken didn't seem convinced by that. Blinken has been calling on Russia to de-escalate and take the diplomatic path that the U.S. and Europeans are offering.

ELLIOTT: Now, Russia still insists that NATO guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join. Russia also wants NATO to roll back its presence in Eastern Europe. And the U.S. and its allies have said no way. So is there any room for compromise here?

KELEMEN: Well, certainly not on those big questions. I mean, the U.S. has accused Russia of creating this crisis in order to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty. And Blinken says this is a problem not just for Europe but for the whole world. But he has suggested that there are some things the two sides can talk about - reciprocal steps on missile deployments, increasing transparency in military exercises. That's far short of what Russia has demanded, of course. Sergey Lavrov, on the other hand, said Russia has put concrete ideas on the table and is expecting written responses from the U.S. and NATO next week. And Blinken said those will be forthcoming.

ELLIOTT: Secretary Blinken was in Berlin yesterday talking to allies, and not everyone sees eye to eye on exactly what type of Russian action against Ukraine would trigger sanctions, as President Biden admitted in his news conference this week. So, Michele, when Blinken left Berlin, were the U.S. and Europeans on the same page?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, it's interesting because what Biden said was true, of course, but it made it really tough for the secretary to come here and tell the Russians that the West is united. The word to use today was that there will be calibrated and coordinated responses to other actions that fall short of an invasion. You know, Blinken said that Russia has a large playbook of things that it's done in the past to destabilize Ukraine, and the U.S. and its partners will respond to all of that.

ELLIOTT: What about the Ukrainians? How are they feeling after a week of diplomacy on their behalf? Are they assured that the West will come to their defense?

KELEMEN: Well, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was really not happy with Biden's comments this week. He wrote on Twitter that he wants to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions. You know, Biden was talking about a minor versus major incursion. But, you know, the White House has cleaned up on that. And Secretary Blinken says that the U.S. and its partners are committed to defending Ukraine's territorial integrity and have given defensive weapons to Ukraine, partly as a deterrence to Russia.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva today. Thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.