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Uncertainty Hangs Over Next Blinken-Lavrov Meeting

The two sides are still talking, as long as Russian forces stay on their side of the Ukraine border.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speak.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speak.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speak during a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on Feb. 17. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden warns of Russian invasion in “next several days,” India and the United Arab Emirates to sign free trade deal, and the Munich Security Conference begins.

A note to our readers: Morning Brief will not be delivered on Monday, Feb. 21, in observance of the Presidents Day holiday in the United States. We will return to normal service on Tuesday, Feb. 22.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden warns of Russian invasion in “next several days,” India and the United Arab Emirates to sign free trade deal, and the Munich Security Conference begins.

A note to our readers: Morning Brief will not be delivered on Monday, Feb. 21, in observance of the Presidents Day holiday in the United States. We will return to normal service on Tuesday, Feb. 22.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Lavrov and Blinken to Meet Next Week

As the weekend approaches, Russia and the United States are no closer to resolving tensions over Ukraine, as U.S. intelligence officials cast doubt on Russia’s apparent military withdrawal.

On Thursday, the Kremlin threatened “military-technical measures” after it deemed U.S. responses to Russian security demands unsatisfactory.

U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Russia could begin an invasion of Ukraine “within the next several days” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his case to the U.N. Security Council.

As FP’s Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch report, the United States and Russia continue to fight a battle for world opinion as Blinken warned the U.N. body of “Russia’s looming aggression” in Ukraine while Russia’s representative simply scoffed.

Blinken outlined the ways Russia could fabricate a pretext for war, including “false flag” terrorist bombings in its own territory, invented mass grave discoveries, or even chemical weapons attacks. A Russian military operation would then be launched in the name of protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Blinken predicted.

It didn’t help that the worst U.S. intelligence prediction in recent memory, that of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, hung over the room. Blinken even tried to preempt the comparison to his predecessor Colin Powell. “I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out. But let me be clear: I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one,” Blinken said.

Blinken will have the chance for more diplomacy next week in Europe, when he meets with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The U.S. State Department said the meeting was contingent on whether an invasion occurs first.

It’s still not clear whether all these warnings, as well as Russia’s buildup, are just part of competing great-power negotiating strategies, but the incentives are aligned to any outcome: If there is a Russian invasion, then the United States will be vindicated in its warnings, and Moscow can say it is protecting Russian-speaking people. If there’s more diplomacy, then the dire warnings can be praised as savvy pressure tactics by Washington and examples of U.S. hysteria by Moscow.

Caught in between is Ukraine, where all eyes will be on the line of contact in its eastern Donbass region, a place that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has warned could “ignite at any moment.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission there saw a jump in cease-fire violations on Thursday, 591 in total, compared with 153 the day before. The number includes 316 explosions, compared with 88 on Wednesday.


What We’re Following Today

Munich opens. The Munich Security Conference opens Friday at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in the Bavarian capital. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres will open proceedings, which will include addresses from U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz over the course of the weekend. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is also expected to attend the event.

India-UAE ties. India and the United Arab Emirates are set to sign a trade and investment deal on Friday that aims to double trade in goods to $100 billion by 2027, cementing the Gulf nation as India’s third-largest trading partner. The announcement comes as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed hold a virtual summit.


Keep an Eye On

U.S. defense spending. Biden is expected to request an increased defense budget of $770 billion for the next fiscal year, a number that may even balloon to $800 billion. U.S. defense spending, already the highest in the world by a large margin, shows no signs of decreasing even after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as the rationale behind the money shifts from the war on terrorism to countering China and Russia. The budget of the next highest spender, China, is estimated at roughly $250 billion.

The Iran deal. The sequencing phases in a potential return of the United States and Iran to the strictures of the 2015 nuclear deal are becoming clearer, according to a draft text seen by Reuters. In the draft, which is still subject to negotiation, Iran will agree to stop uranium enrichment above the 5 percent level and release certain Western prisoners held in Iran, while $7 billion in Iranian funds held in South Korean banks would be unfrozen. Those initial steps would pave the way for further sanctions, particularly on Iran’s oil sector, to be lifted.

The overall deal is expected to fall short of a U.S. guarantee to never leave the deal, with a provision agreed that Iran would instead be allowed to enrich uranium up to the 60 percent level in the event of a U.S. pullout.


Odds and Ends 

Recent bilateral talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Western counterparts have featured a very long third interlocutor: the meeting table.

An immediate subject of online glee, the table has been used when visitors have refused to agree to Russian PCR testing (for fears of DNA theft) so that Putin can meet them at a safe distance.

Until now, the designer of the 20-foot-long table has been a mystery, but the Wall Street Journal has found the artisan, Renato Pologna of Italy. He also worked with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and consulted with Saddam’s son Uday Hussein on palace furniture in Baghdad.

The Kremlin table even predates Putin. It was installed in 1996 for a meeting of Russia and the G-7. “We put everything we had into that table,” Pologna told the Journal. “Let’s hope it brings the world some luck by helping us avoid an armed conflict in Ukraine.”

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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