KYIV, Ukraine - When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ukraine, the Biden administration said on Wednesday that it is providing an additional $ 200 million in defensive military aid to the country amid growing fears of a Russian invasion.
A senior State Department official said the aid was approved in late December as part of a U.S. effort to help Ukraine protect itself. Until Wednesday, however, the administration had declined to comment. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly before Blinken's meetings in Kiev and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We are committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and will continue to provide Ukraine with the support it needs," the official said. The official did not explain the contents of the aid package.
The announcement came as Blinken opened a hastily arranged visit to Kiev as he and other officials of the administration stepped up warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The White House said on Tuesday that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine at any time.
In comments to US embassy staff in Kiev, Blinken went on to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to strengthen Moscow's military presence near Ukraine's border, which now numbers about 100,000 soldiers.
"We know that there are plans to increase that force even further at very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, even at very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine," Blinken said.
After his meetings with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other senior Ukrainian officials and a brief trip to Berlin for talks with German and other European allies on Thursday, Blinken will see his Russian counterpart in Geneva on Friday. That meeting aims to test Russia's willingness to resolve the crisis diplomatically, officials said.
"We are now at a time when Russia can launch an attack on Ukraine at any time," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. "And what Minister Blinken will do is emphasize very clearly that there is a diplomatic way forward."
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.
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. Russia has rejected calls to withdraw its troops, saying it has the right to deploy its forces wherever it wants on its own territory.
Blinken's meetings follow inadequate diplomatic talks between Moscow and Western Europe last week, which 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 be used as a pretext for intervention. Russia has angrily denied the accusation.
From Kiev, Blinken travels to Berlin, where he will meet with his German, British and French colleagues to discuss a possible response to any Russian military action. In Geneva on Friday, Blinken will test Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Russia's interest in a "diplomatic off-ramp" for the crisis, the foreign ministry said.
"The trip follows extensive diplomacy with our European allies and partners on a united approach to addressing the threat posed by Russia to Ukraine and our joint efforts to encourage the country to opt for diplomacy and de-escalation for security and stability reasons," the department said. .
CIA Director William Burns visited Kiev last Wednesday 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. While there, he also discussed the current situation with Zelenskyy and efforts to reduce tensions.
Blinken spoke by telephone on Tuesday with Lavrov and discussed the diplomatic talks and meetings held last week. The State Department said Blinken "stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to reduce tensions" over the situation between Russia and Ukraine and "reiterated the United States' unwavering commitment" to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Russia has rejected US claims that it is preparing a pretext to invade Ukraine. Lavrov dismissed the United States' claim as "total misinformation."
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.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Lavrov in the call with Blinken stressed the key aspects of Russian draft documents that provide for "legally binding guarantees for Russia's security in accordance with the principle of indivisibility of security approved by all Euro-Atlantic countries." 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.
The White House said Friday that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had already deployed agents to rebel-held eastern Ukraine to carry out acts of sabotage there and blame Ukraine for creating a pretext for possible invasion.
Prior to Blinken's visit to Kiev, a delegation of US senators visited Ukraine to emphasize congressional support for the country.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Monday during a visit to Kiev that "any further escalation would cost the Russian regime a high price - economically, politically and strategically," and she stressed the need to continue negotiations.
Russia conquered the Crimean peninsula in 2014 following the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its 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 stones its demands.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.