KYIV, Ukraine — Secretary of State Antony Blinken will speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday in a bid to defuse tensions over the Ukraine crisis, just hours after U.S. and Russian diplomats squared off at the United Nations in one of the most confrontational international meetings in years.
The phone call is the latest diplomatic activity aimed at averting a renewed invasion of Ukraine by more than 100,000 heavily armed troops that Moscow has massed on the country’s border. Leaders from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and Canada are in Ukraine or planning to visit in the coming days.
“We continue to engage in nonstop diplomacy and to de-escalate tensions and attempt like the devil to improve security for our allies and partners and for all of Europe, for that matter,” President Biden told reporters Monday.
Tuesday’s conversation between Blinken and Lavrov is likely to include a discussion on Moscow’s written response to a U.S. proposal aimed at de-escalating the Ukraine crisis. A U.S. official told The Washington Post that the administration received the response Monday.
But Moscow denied Tuesday it had already given Washington a response.
“There has been some confusion. Those were different considerations on a slightly different subject,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“Russia has not given an answer to what seems to be the main problem nowadays. The answer is still being prepared,” he said.
Blinken has described the U.S. proposal as something that offers the Kremlin “a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it.” But U.S. officials have said the West did not bow to Russia’s demand that NATO end its “open door policy” and bar countries such as Ukraine and Georgia from joining the military alliance.
The Kremlin, which has also demanded the removal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe, has repeatedly denied that its massive buildup of troops and military equipment near Ukraine, along with a wave of military exercises, is a precursor to a further assault.
Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, in an encounter that will be closely followed in Washington and other European capitals.
Orban, who leads a European Union and NATO member state, is seeking to increase Hungary’s gas imports from Russia, even as some accuse Moscow of stoking an energy crisis to gain leverage over European countries. The two leaders will also discuss “the current problems of ensuring European security,” the Kremlin said.
“We like the independent approach of Hungary to securing its interests and to choosing its partners,” Peskov said Monday.
Orban, considered Putin’s closest ally within the E.U., has been mostly quiet about the Russian military buildup around Ukraine’s borders. In a weekend statement, he said he is “in favor of peace and de-escalation.”
Hungary’s opposition parties released a joint statement calling on Orban to cancel his trip because “in this tense situation, it is simply treasonous to go to Moscow.”
Orban and Putin are expected to hold a joint news conference after their meeting, perhaps marking the first time the Russian leader addresses the Ukraine crisis in public since Dec. 23.
At the opening session of Ukraine’s Parliament on Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree to increase the size of the country’s armed forces by 100,000 over the next three years. Ukrainian forces currently number 250,000.
“This is the start of Ukraine’s transition to a professional army,” he said. “This decree is not because the war is coming soon — I say this to everyone — this decree is so that soon, and in the future, there will be peace in Ukraine.”
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote Tuesday on Twitter that Ukraine had received a sixth plane of military aid from the United States with “84 tons of ammunition.” U.S. shipments now add up to “about 500 tons of defense equipment, “and this isn’t the end,” he wrote.
Russia’s military announced Monday that about 9,000 troops from southern and western military bases were returning to barracks after military exercises, but it was unclear whether those moves presaged a de-escalation. The Russian navy also announced that 20 warships and other vessels from its Black Sea fleet had returned to port after live-fire exercises.
But the same day, the State Department ordered family members of U.S. government employees in Belarus to leave the country because of “unusual and concerning” Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine. The United States had previously pulled some government staffers from Ukraine.
The U.S. military has issued “prepare to deploy” orders to 8,500 personnel who are likely to be headed to Eastern Europe — Biden has ruled out sending ground troops to Ukraine — although Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday that a final decision had not been made.
Any deployment would be made in “close consultation” with allies in the region, Kirby said. “You can’t just unilaterally decide to throw extra U.S. forces at a country.”
Upcoming diplomacy with Russia is likely to see Britain take a reduced role. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to Ukraine on Tuesday in what London is billing as a “demonstration of support,” but he reportedly had to delay a Monday call with Putin as he deals with the fallout from an investigation into Downing Street parties during the coronavirus pandemic.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was set to accompany Johnson, but she said Monday that she had contracted the coronavirus, just hours after addressing Parliament on tough sanctions that target Russian oligarchs and those close to Putin. Britain on Saturday offered to send jets, warships and military specialists to support NATO’s eastern flank.
As the West rushes support to Eastern Europe, Moscow has also increased naval activity in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Pentagon said it was following Russian sea maneuvers “pretty closely,” though there did not appear to be hostile intent at the moment.
Russia is “clearly increasing the capabilities they have at sea should they need it,” Kirby said, adding that Putin “continues to create more options for himself from a military perspective. … We want to see him exercise a diplomatic option, which, by the way, is also still open to him.”
Pannett reported from Sydney.