Momentum was building on Thursday for direct talks between US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin as both sides sought to avoid a “nightmare” confrontation over Ukraine.
The Russian and US foreign ministers came face to face in Sweden to discuss recent allegations raised by Kiev and its Western allies that Russia could invade ex-Soviet Ukraine this winter.
Western powers have been sounding the alarm for weeks about Russia massing troops along the border with Ukraine, further stoking tensions in an area where a long-running conflict has already left 13,000 dead.
Moscow, which seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backs separatists fighting Kiev, has strongly denied it is plotting an attack and blames Nato for fuelling tensions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday called for “long-term security guarantees” on his country’s borders to halt Nato’s eastward expansion after meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
As Lavrov warned that the “nightmare scenario of a military confrontation was returning” in Europe, Blinken said it was “likely the presidents will speak directly in the near future”.
Russia also said that it hopes for “contact” between Putin and Biden in the coming days.
“The date has not yet been agreed. There are difficulties in aligning the calendars of the two leaders, but contact is very necessary, our problems are multiplying,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
“There is no movement on bilateral affairs, which are more and more reaching an acute crisis phase. There is no mutual understanding about how to de-escalate the situation in Europe,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
“The situation in Europe is very alarming,” he added.
“It’s clear that this will be one of the main topics of discussion at the presidential level.”
Attending a meeting in Stockholm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lavrov accused Nato of inching its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.
Blinken said the US had “deep concerns about Russia’s plans for renewed aggression against Ukraine,” and warned Moscow of “serious consequences” if Russia “decides to pursue confrontation”.
But the top US diplomat also struck a conciliatory note, saying the US was ready to “facilitate” the “full implementation” of the Minsk peace accords.
The Minsk deal was reached after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and aimed at resolving the conflict with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine but was never enforced.
“The best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy,” Blinken said.