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Blinken is on a mission to defuse the crisis between Ukraine and Russia

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

As tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to ratchet up, the Biden administration has dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a mission to defuse the crisis.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Speaking at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv today, Secretary Blinken expressed concern over Russia's maneuverings at the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: 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.

MARTINEZ: A series of diplomatic talks last week did not produce any meaningful progress between the two countries. Blinken is scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart on Friday, but today he is in Ukraine.

ELLIOTT: Traveling with the secretary of state is NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen. And she's on the line now from Kyiv.

Who's Blinken meeting with today, and what will be his message?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, his main goal is to show solidarity with Ukraine at this very dangerous moment. He's meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and he started his day at the U.S. Embassy to talk about contingency planning in case Russia escalates further. As you heard him say there, the U.S. is really worried that this Russian military buildup is continuing. Russia moved troops into Belarus over the weekend. Blinken says he hopes that Russia will take a diplomatic path. But he says the U.S. and its partners have to be ready for anything. And he wasn't the only one making this case. There was a bipartisan congressional delegation here earlier this week. And CIA Director Bill Burns quietly visited last week.

ELLIOTT: So just what is the U.S. willing to do? How much support will the U.S. give Ukraine in the event of an invasion, which the White House now seems to think is a real serious threat?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Well, the U.S. has provided defensive weapons to Ukraine. And an official told us today that the administration recently approved another $200 million in security assistance. And it's not just the U.S. The Brits are also sending weapons. In fact, there was a British cargo plane on the tarmac when we arrived here in Ukraine today. There are other areas where the U.S. is trying to help, too - pushing back on Russian disinformation, beefing up cybersecurity. A lot of this, Debbie, is really just about deterrence, but so far, the Russians don't seem very deterred.

ELLIOTT: What about the Ukrainians? What are they hoping will come out of these talks?

KELEMEN: Well, they want the U.S. to keep its promise that it's not going to negotiate with Russia about Ukraine without Ukraine. That's kind of the motto these days. They say their military is not the same as it was in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and stirred up that separatist movement in eastern Ukraine - areas that are still controlled by Russian proxies. But Ukraine does want the help of U.S. and other NATO countries. They want military assistance and diplomatic backing.

ELLIOTT: So Secretary Blinken next goes to Germany, presumably to shore up solidarity on this issue among NATO allies. Then he goes to Geneva to meet with Russia's foreign minister. Do you have a sense of what he might be willing to offer to encourage the Russians to stand down those troops?

KELEMEN: The Russians have been demanding written responses to the ideas they laid out - ideas that include, among other things, a promise that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. Blinken is not expected to deliver that to Lavrov. But the two men did agree to talk - said it made sense to meet. So that's a good sign, at least, that diplomacy is not dead yet.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ukraine today.

Thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.