U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose the "peaceful path" on Ukraine, as he visited Kyiv in a show of support ahead of crunch talks with Russia later this week.
In Ukraine in advance of talks with European allies in Berlin and his Russian counterpart in Geneva on Friday, Blinken urged Putin to calm fears he is planning an invasion of his pro-Western neighbor.
"I strongly, strongly hope that we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but ultimately, that's going to be President Putin's decision," Blinken said at the U.S. embassy after he landed in the Ukrainian capital.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, tensions between Moscow and the West have reached a post-Cold War high and there are real fears of a major conflict in Eastern Europe.
Moscow insists it has no plans to invade, but is demanding wide-ranging security guarantees — including a ban on Ukraine ever joining NATO — in exchange for a lowering of tensions.
Blinken's arrival Wednesday in Europe upped the diplomatic stakes, and after Kyiv he was headed to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany to seek Western unity, and finally to Geneva on Friday for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
- New U.S. military aid -
On the streets of the separatist-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, residents told AFP they hoped an all-out conflict could be avoided.
"Talks are good, at least it's not war," said Alexei Bokarev, a 77-year-old retired miner.
"The guns are quiet and negotiations are going on, it means that there is some kind of a search for a solution. How will this end? Nobody can say."
Speaking at the embassy ahead of talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Ukrainian counterpart, Blinken warned that Russia could easily send more forces towards Ukraine.
"We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine," Blinken said.
A senior U.S. official meanwhile confirmed that the United States had authorized an additional $200 million in security aid to Ukraine, on top of $450 million already delivered by President Joe Biden's administration.
"We are committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and will continue to provide Ukraine the support it needs," the official said on condition of anonymity.
- 'Extremely dangerous situation' -
As Blinken left Washington, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned of an "extremely dangerous situation" around Ukraine, saying "no option is off the table" in terms of a U.S. response to an invasion.
Lavrov on Tuesday said there would be no further negotiations until the West responds, in writing, to its demands for sweeping security guarantees.
As well as a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO, Moscow is demanding measures that would limit military activities in former Warsaw Pact and ex-Soviet countries that joined the alliance after Cold War.
Washington has rejected the demands as "non-starters" and warned that any invasion of Ukraine would be met with severe economic counter-measures.
Tensions increased on Tuesday with the launch of joint military drills between the forces of Russia and Belarus, which also neighboring Ukraine.
A U.S. official said the exercises could presage a permanent Russian military presence involving both conventional and nuclear forces in Belarus.
Kyiv has been battling a pro-Moscow insurgency in two breakaway regions bordering Russia since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has so far left more than 13,000 dead.