Amid escalating tensions between Kiev and Moscow in recent weeks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in the Ukrainian capital yesterday on a visit aimed at demonstrating Washington's "support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of the country, according to US State Department spokesman Ned Price.
"This is a critical moment for Ukraine," Blinken told a press conference with Kristina Kvien, Chargé d'Affaires at the US Embassy in Ukraine. "It is my fervent hope that we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but ultimately that will be President Putin's decision," he added, warning that if the Russian leader prefers to advocate an aggressive posture, then he will be opting for "confrontation and consequences for Russia".
During his brief stay in Kiev, the US Secretary of State met with President Volodymir Zelensky as well as Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to discuss the Russian threat on the border. "We are now at a stage where Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine at any time," Blinken said. Moreover, the US official added that Moscow is trying to "challenge some very basic principles that underpin the entire international system and that are necessary to try to maintain peace and security; principles like one nation cannot simply change the borders of another by force."
"If we allow these principles to be violated with impunity, then we will open a very big Pandora's box. The whole world is watching what is happening here," he concluded.
Blinken's visit comes just weeks after Washington announced $200 million (more than 175 million euros) in aid to the Kiev government. And, although the details of the items included in this aid package "for security and defence assistance" to Ukraine are not yet known, this is the largest amount provided by the US since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In turn, Blinken's stay in the Ukrainian country has served as a brief preface to his trip to Berlin, where he will meet with his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, to consider the options that are on the table in the face of a hypothetical Russian advance towards Ukraine. Also in the German capital, Blinken and Baerbock will take part in a meeting of the Transatlantic Quad - a group made up of diplomatic representatives from France, the UK, Germany and the US - in order to continue assessing the situation.
However, the most anticipated meeting of Blinken's trip will take place on 21 January, when the US Secretary of State travels to the Swiss city of Geneva to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The two diplomats met by telephone a few days ago to assess last week's meetings between Russia, the US and its allies, although - according to a senior US State Department official - both Blinken and Lavrov concluded that it would be "more useful" to meet in person during the US Secretary of State's trip to Kiev and Berlin. Thus, the announcement of this meeting in Geneva, just hours before Blinken's departure for the European continent, reflects the frenetic pace of negotiations, the outcome of which is still up in the air.
"I am not going to present any documents to Foreign Minister Lavrov. We need to see where we are and see if there are any opportunities left to pursue diplomacy and dialogue," said the US representative after meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. Although expectations for the meeting are not entirely pessimistic, Washington's position is remarkably cautious.
The meeting, which has been described by the State Department official as "an opportunity" to share concerns and find common ground, will revolve around Russia's military movements and security demands. These demands include a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, as well as the withdrawal of NATO troops from territories bordering Russia that are part of the former Soviet sphere - even though they are NATO members, such as Latvia and Lithuania. These demands have been rejected by NATO.
Meanwhile, Putin's regional ally, Alexander Lukashenko, has announced the arrival of Russian troops on Belarusian territory for joint military exercises. In this regard, a member of the US State Department told a press conference that Moscow may be conducting an additional "show of force" ahead of a possible attack. "The fact that we're seeing this move towards Belarus allows the Russians another approach in case they decide to take further military action against Ukraine," Blinken said.
In this regard, several US officials have expressed fears about the rise of methods that, while not a direct invasion, would assist in the destabilisation of Ukraine. These include digital warfare, disinformation activities, cyber-attacks - such as the one that broke into Kiev's official website last Friday - and 'false flag' operations.