Washington (AFP) -
The United States said Friday a diplomatic solution was possible with Russia but that it would not give in to its demands in talks next week, as NATO warned of real risks Moscow will invade Ukraine.
Top Russian and US diplomats meet Monday in Geneva after Moscow amassed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border and urged the West to agree in writing not to expand NATO.
With unusual bluntness, Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of 'gaslighting' the world by alleging provocations by Ukraine and vowed that the talks would focus on Moscow's 'aggression toward Ukraine.'
'We won't be diverted from that issue,' Blinken told reporters.
Using an analogy he has employed before, Blinken likened Russia to 'a fox saying it had to attack the henhouse because its occupants somehow pose a threat.'
Blinken said that Russia should know it was issuing 'absolutely non-starter demands' but that it was part of its 'playbook.'
Russia can 'claim that the other side is not engaging and then to use that as somehow justification for aggressive action,' Blinken said.
Blinken said it was up to Russia whether there will be success in Geneva, where the delegations will be led by his deputy Wendy Sherman and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.
'We're prepared to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression. But a diplomatic solution is still possible and preferable if Russia chooses it,' Blinken said.
- 'Real risks' -
Russian President Vladimir Putin denies plans for an invasion of Ukraine, where Moscow in 2014 seized the Crimean peninsula and has championed an insurgency that has since claimed more than 13,000 lives.
But US President Joe Biden has led Western threats of 'massive' consequences if Russia invades, with measures reportedly under consideration to include severing Moscow from the global banking system.
'The risk of conflict is real. Russia's aggressive actions seriously undermine the security order in Europe,' NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said after a video meeting of the Western alliance's foreign ministers.
'The Russian military build-up has not stopped, it continues and they are gradually building up with more forces, more capabilities.'
Russia contends that it was falsely promised after the Cold War that NATO would not expand eastward.
In draft proposals issued by Russia, NATO would agree not to take in former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia or to build bases elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Russia ramped up pressure on Ukraine following the overthrow of a government that resisted calls to move closer to the West.
After the Geneva talks, Russia on Wednesday will meet with all 30 NATO members -- the first such encounter since July 2019.
'NATO will engage in dialogue with Russia in good faith and on substance but we must also be prepared for the possibility that diplomacy will fail,' Stoltenberg said.
He said that the foreign ministers 'stressed that any further aggression against Ukraine would have significant consequences and carry a heavy price for Russia.'
'All our allies sent a very clear message that we will not compromise on core principles, including the right for every nation to decide its own path,' Stoltenberg said.
- EU divisions -
But diplomats said there were key differences among European allies over the approach NATO should take at the talks with Russia next week.
Some members insist the focus has to remain on getting Putin to back off from Ukraine and that Moscow's proposals need to be rejected out of hand.
Others have said the meeting could already help to kickstart a negotiation process and there are issues where there could be room for discussion.
EU head Ursula von der Leyen insisted that 'Europe has to be involved' in any solution.
Stoltenberg said that the United States had 'been very clear that there will be no decisions about European security, no discussions about European security without the Europeans at the table.'
Blinken similarly promised Friday there would be 'no conversations about Ukraine without Ukraine' in a telephone call with his counterpart.
Moscow's demands have also frayed nerves in non-NATO European allies Finland and Sweden, which have rejected claims anyone should have a say over the decision to join the alliance.
Stoltenberg spoke to the leaders of the two nations Friday to insist the alliance 'respects the right of every country to choose its own path.'