Ukraine invasion fears as Putin faces Covid backlash in Russia
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent warnings to one another at a security conference in Sweden on Thursday. While Mr Blinken spoke of "serious consequences" if Russia sought conflict with Ukraine, Mr Lavrov cautioned against the presence of "American medium-range missiles" in Europe.
The talks come as Russia boosts its military near Ukraine's border, where Kyiv says Moscow has amassed more than 90,000 troops.
Russia denies any intentions of attacking Ukraine and accuses the country of its own military build-up.
Russia said on Thursday it had arrested three suspected Ukrainian security service agents, one of whom Russia's Federal Security Service accused of planning a terrorist attack.
According to the agency, the other two had been seeking to gather intelligence.
Before the two leaders' meeting at the conference of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm, Mr Lavrov told to reporters he was ready for dialogue with Kyiv.
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Russia and the US have held heated talks over Moscow's conflict with Ukraine
He said: "We, as President Putin has stated, do not want any conflicts."
Their sit down served as a potential bridge between the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva last June, where they already discussed the build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine's border, and a second summit soon.
Mr Blinken said: "I think it’s likely the presidents will speak directly in the near future".
Russia's foreign ministry hoped a Putin-Biden summit would take place in the coming days but Interfax reported no date had been set.
Last month, Russia's Nikolai Patrushev and the US' Jake Sullivan held "high-level" security talks in preparation for a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
However, a date was not set then either.
Antony Blinken spoke to Sergei Lavrov about the need for Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine
The meeting between the two may have served as a warm-up for a Biden-Putin summit
Earlier this week, Mr Putin said his government would seek US guarantees that Nato will limit its presence in Ukraine, which is not a member of the security alliance.
Russia is also determined to avoid Nato admitting Ukraine as a member of the alliance.
Given their shared history — they formed the two biggest republics of the Soviet Union until its 1991 collapse — Moscow regards its neighbour's ambition to join Nato as an offence and a threat.
On Thursday, suggesting President Putin's attempts to secure guarantees had not proved successful, Mr Lavrov accused Nato of refusing to constructively consider proposals to de-escalate tensions and prevent dangerous incidents.
The Russian foreign minister warned the alliance against turning their neighbouring countries into "bridgeheads of confrontation".
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Presidents Putin and Biden are set to meet again in 'the near future'
At a joint news conference with Mr Lavrov, Mr Blinken urged Russia to pull back its forces, saying diplomacy was the best way to exit the crisis.
He claimed: "The United States is willing to facilitate that but... if Russia decides to pursue confrontation there will be serious consequences."
Mr Lavrov said: "The alliance's military infrastructure is being irresponsibly brought closer to Russia's borders in Romania and Poland, deploying an anti-missile defence system that can be used as a strike complex.
"American medium-range missiles are about to appear in Europe, bringing back the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation."
After the joint news conference, Mr Blinken told the media: "I made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.
"It's now on Russia to de-escalate the current tensions by reversing the recent troop buildup, returning forces to normal peacetime positions and refraining from further intimidation and attempts to destabilise Ukraine."
Mr Lavrov warned once more: "We're going to make sure we are heard but the main thing is our security."
Touching again upon the threat of the relationship of Nato and Ukraine, he added: "So if Nato still refuses to discuss this theme or the guarantees or ideas put forward by the president of Russia Vladimir Putin, of course we will take measures to ensure that our security, our sovereignty and our territorial integrity does not depend on anyone else."