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US calls upon Russia to pull troops back from Ukraine border

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WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Russia to immediately de-escalate tensions and to withdraw troops from Ukraine’s borders in a call on Tuesday with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Blinken “emphasised that further invasion of Ukraine would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path,” the US State department said in a statement.

Lavrov said after the call that he had told Blinken that Russia would continue insisting on its demands, including that the West stick to its security “obligations,” and added that: “Blinken agreed that there is subject for further discussion.” The call came amid rising worries that Russia intends to attack Ukraine, and a US official said Lavrov gave “no indication” of any plans to de-escalate.

Blinken said Washington and its European partners are willing to keep talking, but also underscored “the US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and to Kiev’s right to determine its own alliances — a reference to Russia’s demand for a pledge that Ukraine will not join Nato.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, Tuesday saw another burst of top-level diplomacy to try to head off a major conflict in Europe.

The British and Polish prime ministers were in Kiev for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the Hungarian leader in Moscow and held a phone call with the Italian prime minister.

Putin was to give a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after their talks, and could make his first major comments on the crisis in weeks.

Going in to the meeting with Orban, Putin reiterated that Moscow had sent proposals to Washington for “written commitments” on Russia’s demands for security guarantees from the West.

“I would like to assure you that no EU leader wants war or conflict, we are ready for a rational agreement, from the EU side,” Orban told the Russian leader.

Orban, one of Putin’s few allies among Nato and EU leaders, made the trip to Moscow in defiance of opposition parties who said it went against the country’s national interests.

Tensions between Russia and the West have been building for weeks, with Washington accusing Moscow of deploying more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and preparing an invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.

Russia denies any plans to invade but is demanding that Ukraine never be allowed to join Nato and a series of other security guarantees against the US-led military alliance’s expansion in the ex-Soviet bloc.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged “a de-escalation of tensions” in a call with Putin on Tuesday, a day after French leader Emmanuel Macron spoke to Putin for the second time in four days. Western leaders have repeatedly warned of “severe consequences” if Russia does invade, including wide-ranging and damaging economic sanctions.

Britain and the United States said they were looking at targeting people in Putin’s inner circle, including powerful business allies. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told parliament that the government was putting through “the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we’ve ever had”. “Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide,” she said.

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2022

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