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The U.S. says it will stand firm against major Russian demands as tension rises

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about Russia and Ukraine during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Brendan Smialowski
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about Russia and Ukraine during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Updated January 26, 2022 at 5:47 PM ET

As concern rises that Russia is preparing to attack Ukraine, the United States is not bending to major demands by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

Blinken made the remarks as he announced the U.S. had presented its formal, written response to a list of demands from Putin last month regarding European security. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops in Russia and Belarus along the border with Ukraine, sparking fears of an imminent invasion.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered the U.S. document to the Russian Foreign Ministry earlier Wednesday. It was also shared with Congress.

"We make clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend – including Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances," Blinken said.

Among Putin's demands are that Ukraine be barred from joining the defense pact and the withdrawal of NATO military personnel and equipment from states added after 1997, which include the three Baltic states that border Russia.

Although the letter has not been released publicly, Blinken reiterated the line from U.S. officials in recent weeks that such demands are non-starters. "From our perspective, I can't be more clear: NATO's door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment," Blinken said.

Blinken, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week, is expected to meet with him again in the coming days.

"There is no daylight among the United States and our allies and partners on these matters," Blinken said.

In a separate press conference Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeated the alliance's commitment to its open-door membership policy that allows any European state to join if it can meet certain obligations.

"We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliance, and security in Europe and North America, rest," Stoltenberg said.

NATO also called on Russia to participate in talks about cyber-attacks, chemical warfare and arms control, Stoltenberg said.

The ball is in Russia's court, Blinken says

As the Biden administration works the diplomatic angle, the U.S. has stepped up military assistance to Ukraine. Deliveries of Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-armor systems and ammunition are set to arrive in Kyiv this week.

The U.S. had previously announced that five Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters, once in the hands of the now-defunct Afghan air force, will be transferred to Ukraine and that 8,500 American troops stationed in Europe and the U.S. had been placed on heightened readiness.

The U.S. has also developed a set of "severe" economic sanctions, including export controls, Blinken said.

"We've laid out a diplomatic path. We've lined up steep consequences should Russia choose further aggression. We've stepped forward with more support for Ukraine's security and economy. And we and our partners and allies are united across the board," Blinken said. "It remains up to Russia to decide how to respond. We're ready either way."

The Biden administration has worked to stiffen its stance on Russia — especially after criticism last week over a press conference in which President Biden appeared to suggest a lesser response to a "minor incursion" by Russia in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the State Department took pains to emphasize the seriousness of the response the U.S. has readied if Putin refuses to draw down the military presence near Ukraine.

"Typically, a response like this starts out gradually and builds up if the country in question does not change its behavior. We are reversing that here. We are going to start at the top of the escalation ladder, meaning our sanctions, our response will be severe," said State Department spokesperson Ned Price in an interview with NPR.

As many as 15,000 U.S. citizens were in Ukraine as of last month, according to estimates from the State Department. On Wednesday, Blinken urged them to consider leaving the country. Though he assured them that the embassy in Kyiv would remain open, he warned that a Russian invasion could complicate the embassy's ability to aid citizens.

Some in Ukraine are skeptical that an invasion is imminent, but other options could be on the table

The force Russia has amassed at the Ukrainian border – about 127,000 troops – "is not even close to what you need to occupy Ukraine," said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, in an interview with NPR.

Zagorodnyuk said he doesn't expect Russia to mount a full-scale invasion yet, but that Russia can still carry out hybrid attacks on Ukraine, such as cyberattacks and bomb threats — and that Russia could try to isolate Ukraine with a blockade.

If Russia sends its troops into Ukraine, it would be the largest invasion since World War II, President Biden said on Tuesday — adding that such a move "would change the world."

Putin has long insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people." In a detailed history published last July, Putin argued that the countries are two "parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space."

"For him, I think it's really personal. Putin, over his 22 years now in power, has tried and failed repeatedly to bring Ukraine back into the fold. And I think he senses that now is his time to take care of this unfinished business," said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer now with the Center for a New American Security.

Although an outright invasion by Russia has been the main international concern, a number of other scenarios are possible, experts say, from hybrid warfare to a ramping up of tensions at Ukraine's eastern border, where Russian-backed insurgents have been fighting with Ukrainian security forces for years, in the region known as Donbas.

If Russia opts for a traditional ground invasion, it has three main potential paths into Ukraine, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "a northern thrust, possibly attempting to outflank Ukrainian defenses around Kiev by approaching through Belarus; a central thrust advancing due west into Ukraine; and a southern thrust advancing across the Perekop isthmus."

Putin's Russia attacked Ukraine's sovereignty in 2014 when it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.