Latest Ukraine updates: Russia, US voice hope for diplomacy

Ukraine tensions news from January 21: Lavrov and Blinken, the top Russian and US diplomats, conclude Geneva talks aimed at defusing tensions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before their meeting, in Geneva, Switzerland
Friday's discussions with Sergey Lavrov mark the end of a whistlestop tour through Europe by Blinken [Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov have held talks in Geneva over the Ukraine crisis.

Friday’s high-stakes meeting concluded Blinken’s whistle-stop European tour; he has been seeking commitments among Washington’s allies on how to respond if Moscow presses ahead with a feared invasion of its neighbour.

The United States has called on Russia to pull back thousands of troops it has massed near the border with Ukraine, warning any incursion would be met with a swift, severe and united response from the White House and its partners.

Moscow denies it is planning an attack, and demands that the US-headed NATO military alliance end activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine and never embrace the former Soviet republic as a new member.

The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for Friday January 21:

Lukashenko warns the West of retaliation if pushed

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said that Belarus and Russia could “smack so hard that there’ll be hell to pay” if the West and Ukraine keep “bugging” the two close allies.

“We don’t want a war,” Lukashenko told journalists while visiting a military facility 50km (31 miles) from the Ukrainian border.

“But if they (Western countries and Ukraine) not only constantly bug us as they do now, but also deploy armies against us, intimidate us, and put us on the edge of survival by various sanctions and so on, or threaten us as they do now – I’m talking now as the head of the Union State (of Russia and Belarus) – then we would smack so hard that there’ll be hell to pay.” Lukashenko said.

“They should never mess with us. It’s impossible to defeat us.”

Lavrov calls for end to anti-Russia hysteria

Lavrov has called on the West to end the “anti-Russia hysteria” after his meeting with Blinken.

Russia is not threatening anyone and is not invading any country, Lavrov said at a news conference in Geneva. He dismissed fears in the West that an invasion of Ukraine could be imminent.

Lavrov criticised what he said was a “Russophobic minority” setting the tone. The minister stressed that the security of one country in Europe could not be guaranteed to the detriment of another.

Baltic States sending anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine

NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will provide Ukraine with US-made anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles, their defence ministers have said in a joint statement.

“Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and their Allies are working together expeditiously to hand over the security assistance to Ukraine,” the statement said.

Estonia will send Javelin anti-armour missiles, and Latvia and Lithuania will send Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

Ukraine president welcomes Canadian loan as boosting European security

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has thanked Canada for its decision to loan $95.6m ($120m Canadian dollars) to help Ukraine in its standoff with Russia.

“Our two nations share the view that the European security is impossible without Ukraine’s security,” Zelenskyy said in a tweet.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was also looking at other ways to support Kyiv as a crisis with Russia deepens.

German foreign minister: Cutting Russia off from Swift ‘not sharpest sword’

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has expressed scepticism about cutting Russian banks off from the Swift global payments system in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

“Decoupling all payment transactions would perhaps be the biggest stick, but not necessarily the sharpest sword,” she told the paper.

She said Western countries were looking very closely at which economic and financial sanctions would actually affect the Russian economy and leadership without a bounceback effect.

“The chancellor and I have made it quite clear that any means and measures are on the table in terms of further military escalation. And that includes Nord Stream 2,” she said.

Polish PM calls for united European stance on Ukraine

Poland’s prime minister has called on European leaders to take a tough, united stance towards Russia.

“Poland unequivocally supports Ukraine in its pro-Western aspirations,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a podcast.

“In the face of Russian threats, European unity and solidarity is key for Ukraine. Russia must know that it is dealing with a united front without exceptions.”

Separatist commander: Ukraine preparing for an offensive

A rebel commander in Ukraine’s east has claimed the Ukrainian government is amassing artillery and rocket launchers in the region.

Eduard Basurin, a militia commander of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, told The Associated Press that military hardware is being shipped to the border in a sign that Ukraine was preparing for an offensive.

“They are amassing hardware, artillery, Howitzer artillery as well as multiple rocket launchers, in larger amounts than before,” he said.

“Plus the shipment of the freshly arrived launchers to the line of contact. The functional capabilities of those launchers are tailored for short distances, so we can say they are preparing for offensive moves.”

Canada to offer Ukraine a loan of up to $95.6m: PM

Canada will offer Ukraine a loan of up to $95.6m ($120m Canadian dollars) and is looking at other ways to support Kyiv as a crisis with Russia deepens, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said.

“This loan will help support Ukraine’s economic resilience,” Trudeau told a news conference, reiterating his condemnation of Russia’s moves to build up troops near the Ukrainian border.

He sidestepped questions about whether Canada would send weapons to Ukraine.

Correspondent: Meeting ‘a gauging of the mood by the Russians’

Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Moscow, has said the talks were “very much a gauging of the mood by the Russians about where the Americans stand about the security proposals they put forth, about what they expect the American government to do and about NATO’s further expansion.

“The Russian foreign minister said that there is currently a lot of hysteria, that Russia is not interested in invading Ukraine and all this talk is a false narrative created by Western powers to give them an excuse to put more NATO troops alongside the border with Russia and that is something this country cannot accept,” Jabbari said.

“He said they will wait to find out in a written answer by the US government next week where the US stands on what the Russians are asking for and they will decide how to proceed from that point forward.”

Ukrainian president says Russia could try to occupy Kharkiv

Russia may try to occupy the industrial city of Kharkiv if it takes military action in Ukraine, and this would be the start of a “large-scale war”, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has told the Washington Post.

Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, is the former Soviet republic’s second biggest city and lies 42km (26 miles) from the border.

“I will say realistically if Russia decides to enhance their escalation, of course they are going to do this on those territories where historically there are people who used to have family links to Russia,” Zelenskyy said.

“Kharkiv, which is under Ukraine government control, could be occupied. Russia needs a pretext: They will say that they are protecting the Russian-speaking population.”

He said he believed this scenario was “feasible” following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine says Russia behind bomb hoaxes aimed at sowing ‘panic’

Ukraine says it has been subjected to a campaign of fake bomb threats targeting society in recent days, blaming Russia for the hoaxes.

“The obvious goal of the special services of the aggressor country is to put additional pressure on Ukraine, to sow alarm and panic in society,” the security services in Kyiv said in a statement.

Poland backs ‘Euro-Atlantic integration’ of Ukraine, says president

Poland supports the full “Euro-Atlantic integration” of Ukraine and rejects the idea of spheres of influence, the country’s president says after holding talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“I told President Zelenskiy that Ukraine can count on our country’s support,” Andrzej Duda wrote on Twitter. “Poland rejects the concept of spheres of influence and supports full Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine.”

Romania dismisses ‘unacceptable’ Russian demand for NATO troop removal

Romania has labelled as “unacceptable” a Russian demand that NATO forces stationed on the alliance’s eastern flank be withdrawn.

“Such a demand is unacceptable and cannot be part of a negotiation,” Romania’s foreign ministry said in a news release.

The ministry added that NATO’s presence in allied countries was “a purely defensive reaction to Russia’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the eastern vicinity … currently intensifying despite NATO’s attempts to engage in constructive dialogue”.

Ukraine says Russia recruiting mercenaries, sending arms to east

As the Lavrov-Blinken meeting dominated headlines, Ukraine accused Russia of boosting supplies of weapons, ammunition and military equipment to separatist regions in Ukraine while actively recruiting mercenaries to fight in the continuing conflict.

Read more here.

‘No breakthroughs and no quick fixes’

Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Geneva, says the US and Russia “remain worlds apart” in their positions on the Ukraine crisis despite positive noises following Friday’s talks.

“There were no breakthroughs and no quick fixes, what the two did agree on though was that they would pursue dialogue,” she said.

“But Blinken did say there is no doubt from the US point of view that Russia is continuing to escalate the situation behind the scenes, by amassing troops near the border with Ukraine, while at the same time saying that it wants to pursue diplomacy.

“Lavrov, of course, would say that the US and Western powers are also being aggressive in their actions by continuing to try and expand eastwards with NATO.”

Blinken raises possibility of Biden-Putin meeting

US President Joe Biden is ready to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin if the two sides deem it necessary to reach a resolution on Ukraine, Blinken says.

“President Biden met here in Geneva with President Putin, he’s spoken to him on the phone or via videoconference on a number of occasions, and if we conclude [and] the Russians conclude that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between them, we’re certainly prepared to do that,” he told reporters.

But earlier, the Russian foreign minister had said such a meeting was “premature” and that another Blinken-Lavrov meeting was more likely.

‘Real issue’ over competing views of history

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, says Blinken’s remarks signalled “hopeful signs” that there may yet be further diplomacy.

“But the devil is in the details … when it comes to the issue of history, they both (the US and Russia) see history very differently,” she said, citing competing views of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

US to share its ideas with Russia next week

Blinken says Washington will share its concerns and ideas with Russia next week in writing, following his meeting with Lavrov.

The US state secretary told reporters the pair agreed it was important for diplomacy to continue.

Blinken: Talks were ‘frank and substantive’

Blinken says his talks with Lavrov were “frank and substantive”, adding he shared the US’s ideas on how to boost security on where the two powers could find common ground.

Addressing reporters after the meeting, he said while there were no breakthroughs on Ukraine, Washington and Moscow are now on a “clearer path” to understanding each other’s concerns.

“I believe we can carry forward this work of developing understanding and agreements together that assure our mutual security. But that is contingent on Russia stopping its aggression toward Ukraine,” he said. “So that is the choice Russia faces: It can choose the path of diplomacy that leads to peace and security or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation.”

NATO member Bulgaria hits out at Russia demands

Bulgaria will decide on its defence plans alone in coordination with its NATO allies, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov says.

“Bulgaria is a sovereign country, which has made its choice long ago by becoming a NATO member. As such, we alone decide to organise the defence of our country in coordination with our partners,” Petkov told Bulgaria’s Parliament.

Petkov’s remarks, in which he also called on Russia to engage in dialogue with the West to de-escalate tensions, came after Russia’s foreign ministry said the security guarantees it seeks from the West included provisions requiring NATO forces to leave Romania and Bulgaria.

A Russian serviceman carries an ammunition during a military drills at Molkino training ground in the Krasnodar region, Russia
Russia has massed huge contingents of troops near its border with Ukraine in recent months [AP]

‘Diplomacy is not dead’

Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Moscow, says the talks between Lavrov and Blinken seem to have been “somewhat productive”.

“There weren’t a lot of expectations from both sides going into it (the meeting), but what the Russian foreign minister highlighted was that there were a lot of clarifications made,” she said.

“The general consensus was last week that the diplomacy path was very much over, but now it seems that it has been revived … and there is an incentive from both sides to continue the dialogue. Diplomacy is not dead.”

Talks did not touch on Latin America military deployment threats, Lavrov says

Lavrov says Russia’s apparent threat to deploy military units to Venezuela and Cuba amid the continuing tensions was not discussed with Blinken during the pair’s meeting.

Answering a question from a reporter on the topic, the Russian foreign minister said it was “not touched upon” in the Geneva discussions.

Lavrov: Russia expects US response to demands next week

Lavrov says he expects the US will present a written response to Russia’s security demands next week following his talks with Blinken.

Addressing reporters at a news conference following the pair’s meeting, the Russian foreign minister also said he explained to his US counterpart that Russia has no plans to attack Ukraine.

He added he hoped “emotions will decrease” after the talks, which he described as “frank”.

Russian defence minister invites British counterpart to Moscow: Report

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has invited his British counterpart Ben Wallace to visit Moscow for talks on security and easing tensions in Europe, the Interfax news agency cites Russia’s defence ministry as saying.

Wallace this week extended a similar invitation to Shoigu, asking him to visit London to discuss issues related to mutual security concerns.

Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

Iran, Russia and China have begun a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean, according to Iranian state media.

Iran’s state TV said 11 of the country’s vessels were joined by three Russian ships, including a destroyer, and two Chinese units for the drills. Tehran has sought to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the US.

The exercises come after Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval manoeuvres in multiple areas set to last into February.

‘No easy way out’ for US, Russia: Analyst

Fabrice Pothier, chief strategy officer at consultancy firm Rasmussen Global, named after its founder, the former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says there is “no easy way out, or easy win” for either the US or Russia in the ongoing situation.

“The essence of this crisis is artificial, it has been handmade by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who decided … to try and squeeze some concessions out of the US and NATO that Putin knows very well they cannot give him,” Pothier, a former NATO planner, told Al Jazeera from Santander, Spain.

Blinken: ‘This is a critical moment’

The US does not expect to resolve its differences with Russia over Ukraine at the talks in Geneva but hopes to test whether diplomacy remains a viable option, Blinken says on his arrival for the meeting.

“This is a critical moment. You’re right: We don’t expect to resolve our differences here today,” Blinken said in televised opening remarks.

“But I do hope and expect that we can test whether the path of diplomacy, of dialogue, remains open. We’re committed to walking that path, to resolving our differences peacefully and I hope to test that proposition today,” he added.

Lavrov: Russia not expecting a breakthrough

Lavrov tells Blinken that Moscow is not expecting any breakthrough during the talks in Geneva, adding Moscow expects a concrete response to its sweeping security demands.

“[Our] proposals are extremely concrete and we await equally concrete answers,” the Russian foreign minister said in televised opening remarks.

Diplomats begin discussions

Blinken and Lavrov kick off their talks at the lakeside luxury Hotel President Wilson, named after the US leader whose decisions included intervening against the Bolshevik revolution.

The pair shook hands and greeted one another before the discussions started shortly after 11am local time (10:00 GMT).

A Ukrainian service member walks along fighting positions on the contact line with Russian-backed separatist rebels near the town of Avdiivka in Donetsk Region, Ukraine
Kyiv and its allies fear that a Russian invasion may be imminent [File: Oleksandr Klymenko/Reuters]

Moscow expects US reply to security demands next week: Report

Moscow expects to receive a written reply from Washington to its demands on security guarantees next week, Interfax quotes Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

Ryabkov said Russia blamed the US for the fact that bilateral ties were close to a “dangerous critical line”, but hoped to persuade Washington to change its approach.

The Kremlin has warned it could take unspecified military action if its proposals are not met.

Kremlin cool on recognising Ukraine’s breakaway regions

The Kremlin has reacted coolly to a Russian parliament initiative to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states, saying it is important to avoid steps that could increase existing tensions.

Russia’s parliament will hold consultations next week on an idea to recognise the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Donbas, the chamber’s speaker said.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was important not to try and score political points in such a fragile situation.

Ukraine says Russia sending mercenaries, weapons to eastern Ukraine

Ukraine’s military intelligence says Russia is actively recruiting mercenaries and sending them for intensive training in separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine.

It said in a statement that fuel, several tanks, artillery and mortars had been secretly taken to the area from Russia.

Europeans are ‘united’ on Ukraine crisis, Spain’s FM says

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares says that Europeans have a united position on the Ukraine crisis and that Madrid is pushing for dialogue to avert conflict.

“Let’s give dialogue a chance. That is what Spain is pushing for. If dialogue does not bear fruit, of course, Spain will stand with its European partners and its NATO allies united in deterrence,” Albares said in Madrid.

Spain has sent warships to join NATO naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea as tensions rise, Defence Minister Margarita Robles said on Thursday.

‘Not expecting major breakthroughs’

Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Geneva, says Blinken is hoping the meeting with Lavrov will lead to “more diplomacy and talks in the future”.

“That is the only alternative to conflict,” she said. “But what we are not expecting though are any major breakthroughs after we have had more than nearly two weeks of talks and meetings without concrete results.”

Blinken: I don’t expect we’ll solve difficult issues in Geneva

Blinken says he does not expect the “difficult issues” underscoring US-Russia tensions to be resolved during his discussions with Lavrov.

“These are difficult issues we are facing, and resolving them won’t be done quickly. I don’t expect we’ll solve them in Geneva,” Blinken said before the talks.

“But we can advance our mutual understanding,” he added. Blinken also said if Russia de-escalates on the ground, “that can turn us away from this crisis in the weeks ahead”.

Russia wants NATO forces to leave Romania, Bulgaria

The security guarantees that Russia seeks from the West include provisions requiring NATO forces to leave Romania and Bulgaria, the Russian foreign ministry says.

Moscow has demanded legally binding guarantees from NATO that the bloc will stop its expansion and return to its 1997 borders.

Replying to a question about what that would mean for Bulgaria and Romania, which joined NATO after 1997, the foreign ministry said Russia wanted all foreign troops, weapons and other military hardware withdrawn from those countries.

Can US sanctions sway Putin’s thinking?

The US and its Western allies have pledged to impose sweeping economic sanctions on Russia should it make an incursion into Ukraine.

But what penalties could Washington and its partners impose, and how badly would they actually hurt Moscow? Read Al Jazeera’s analysis here.

Russia sends S-400 battalions to Belarus for drills: Report

Russia is sending two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Belarus to join military drills there next month, Interfax reports.

Russian military forces and hardware began arriving in Belarus this week for the “Allied Resolve” drills to be held near the former Soviet republic’s western border with NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and close to its southern flank with Ukraine.

The S-400 battalions – which typically include eight anti-aircraft missile systems each – had been dispatched from Russia’s Far East by train, Interfax quoted the defence ministry as saying. Moscow has said 12 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and a Pantsir missile system would also be deployed to Belarus for the drills.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies