Russia’s top diplomat advised President Vladimir Putin on Monday to continue talks with the West on Russian security demands amid tensions over Ukraine.
Speaking at the start of a meeting with Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Moscow should continue a dialogue with the United States and its allies even though they have rejected Russia's main security conditions.
"As head of the Foreign Ministry, I must say that there is always a chance" to find agreement, Lavrov told Putin during a meeting when asked to comment on ongoing talks with the West.
He noted that the U.S. has offered to conduct dialogue on limits for missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures. Asked by Putin if it made sense to continue diplomatic efforts, Lavrov responded that possibilities for talks haven’t been exhausted and proposed continuing the negotiations.
"Is there a chance to reach an agreement with our partners on key issues or is it an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process?" Putin asked Lavrov in televised remarks.
Lavrov replied, "Our possibilities are far from being exhausted, they certainly should not continue indefinitely, but I would suggest continuing and ramping them up."
The meeting came as Germany’s chancellor began a trip to Kyiv and Moscow for a last-ditch attempt to head off a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine that some warn could be only days away.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have repeatedly warned Russia that it will pay a high price for any invasion – but they have sometimes struggled to present a united front. Scholz's government, in particular, has been criticized for refusing to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine or to spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia, raising questions about Berlin’s resolve to stand up to Moscow.
So far, NATO's warnings appear to have had little effect: Russia has only beefed up troops and weapons in the region and launched massive drills with its ally Belarus, which also neighbors Ukraine. The West fears that the drills, which will run through Sunday, could be used by Moscow as cover for an invasion from the north.
Russia has repeatedly brushed off Ukrainian and Western concerns about the military buildup, saying it has the right to deploy forces wherever needed on its territory.
Moscow wants guarantees from the West that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members, and that the alliance will halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe. However, the U.S. and NATO have flatly rejected those demands.
Some observers expect Moscow to eventually accept a compromise that would help avoid hostilities and allow all sides to save face. While NATO refuses to shut the door to Ukraine, the alliance also has no intention of embracing it or any other ex-Soviet nation anytime soon. Some experts have floated ideas such as a moratorium on NATO expansion or a neutral status for Ukraine to defuse the tensions.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Sunday that Kyiv requested a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the next 48 hours to discuss the Russian deployments near the country’s borders.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people.
The European Union is preparing several responses to any further moves by Russia to destabilize Ukraine, but the bloc does not know exactly what Moscow plans to do, an EU official said.
The official said U.S. talks with Russia were "not yielding a lot" but that dialogue with Putin was still open through the leaders of Germany and France.
The official, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said the harsher the EU sanctions against Russia would be in case of a military invasion, the bigger the hit for the bloc should Moscow retaliate.
The official said 40% of EU gas came from Russia and that the bloc was in talks with Norway and Qatar, among others, about increased energy supplies if needed.
The official also said the EU was looking at how quickly Russia could switch its energy supplies to China should it cut sales to Europe.
The EU was also preparing for refugee arrivals should Russia invade Ukraine, they said.
The source said the EU was expecting to decide on further macroeconomic support for Ukraine and that Kyiv was seeking more political support.
Some in the EU wanted to impose strong sanctions to discourage Russia from any attack, but others said that would amount to an escalation of tensions and that the bloc should only react later if needed, the official said.