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Blinken calls for unity to fight ‘relentless’ Russian aggression

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday urged Western nations to remain united in what he called "relentless" Russian aggression against Ukraine and reassured Ukraine's leader of their support, while urging Ukrainians to stand strong.

Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to Kiev that the United States and its allies were steadfast in supporting his country and its democratic aspirations amid growing fears of a potentially imminent Russian invasion.

Blinken said Russia had plans to increase its military presence of about 100,000 soldiers along the Ukrainian border and suggested that the number could soon double. Blinken also said he would not present a formal written response to Russia's demands when he meets with Russia's foreign minister on Friday.

"The Ukrainian people chose a democratic and European path in 1991. They went to the Maidan to defend that election in 2013, and unfortunately ever since, you have been subjected to relentless aggression by Moscow," Blinken said, referring to Ukraine's path since the collapse of the Ukrainian government. Soviet Union.

"Our strength depends on maintaining our unity, and that includes unity in Ukraine," he told Zelenskyy. "I think one of Moscow's long-term goals has been to try to sow division between and within our countries, and we simply can and will not let them do that."

The Biden administration said earlier that it provided an additional $ 200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine to help protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the help, which was approved in late December but not formally confirmed until Wednesday, as well as for his visits and assurances of support.

"This (military) support speaks not only to our strategic plans for Ukraine to join the Alliance, but more importantly to the level of our military, our military supplies," he said, referring to Kyiv's desire to join NATO due to of Russia's strong objections.

"If we want dramatically rapid steps in modernizing the military, we need help, especially in these tough times," Zelenskyy said. "Your visit is very important. It underlines once again your strong support for our independence and sovereignty."

The order for help came at the start of Blinken's hastily arranged visit, as US and Western officials stepped up increasingly serious warnings of a possible Russian invasion.

Blinken said Russian President Vladimir Putin is now capable of launching military action against Ukraine at will and at very short notice with more than 100,000 troops gathered at the border and plans to add more. He said the number "could be doubled on a relatively short order", but he did not give details.

"We know there are plans to increase that force even further at very short notice, and it gives President Putin the capacity, even at very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine," Blinken told staff at the US embassy in Kiev.

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Following his meetings with Zelenskyy and other senior Ukrainian officials, Blinken is planning a short trip to Berlin for talks with German and other European allies on Thursday. He is scheduled to see his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva on Friday. That meeting aims to test Russia's willingness to resolve the crisis diplomatically, officials said.

The administration and its European allies have accused Putin of creating the crisis by gathering troops along Ukraine's borders, and it is up to him and the Russians to decide whether to invade and suffer severe economic consequences.

Russia has rejected calls to withdraw its troops, saying it has the right to deploy its forces wherever it wants on its own territory. It has also rejected US claims that it is preparing a pretext to invade Ukraine. Lavrov dismissed the US allegation as "total misinformation."

The United States has not concluded whether Putin is planning to invade or whether the show of force is intended to push security concessions without an actual conflict. Unresolved diplomatic negotiations between Moscow and Western Europe last week failed to resolve sharp disagreements over Ukraine and other security issues.

Instead, these meetings appear to have heightened fears of a Russian invasion, and the Biden administration has accused Russia of preparing a "false flag operation". to use as a pretext for intervention. Russia has angrily denied the accusation.

CIA Director William Burns visited Kiev last week to consult with his Ukrainian colleagues and discuss current assessments of the risk to Ukraine, said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Burns' schedule, which is kept secret.

Prior to his face-to-face meeting with L avrov, Blinken spoke with the Russian foreign minister by telephone on Tuesday and "stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to reduce tensions," the foreign ministry said.

Lavrov confirmed that Russia expects a written response this week from the United States and its allies to Moscow's request for binding guarantees that NATO will not embrace Ukraine or other former Soviet countries or station its forces and weapons there.

Blinken stressed to Lavrov on Tuesday that any discussion on European security "should include NATO allies and European partners, including Ukraine," the foreign ministry said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that in the call with Blinken, Lavrov emphasized the most important aspects of Russia's draft documents, which provide for "legally binding guarantees for Russia's security in accordance with the principle of indivisibility of security approved by all Euro-Atlantic countries. sea." It said Lavrov stressed the importance of Washington promptly delivering a written response to the Russian proposals.

Washington and its allies vehemently rejected Moscow's demands during last week's Russia-US negotiations in Geneva and a related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels, and it does not appear that the Biden administration will respond to Russia in writing.

Meanwhile, the White House accuses Russia of deploying operations to rebel-held eastern Ukraine for carrying out acts of sabotage there and blaming Ukraine for creating a pretext for possible invasion.

Prior to Blinken's visit to Kiev, a delegation of US senators was visiting Ukraine to emphasize congressional support for the country.

In 2014, Russia conquered the Crimean peninsula after the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly leader and also threw his weight behind a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between the Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country's industrial heartland called the Donbas.

Putin has warned that Moscow will take unspecified "military-technical measures" if the West enshrines its demands.

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Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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