The latest on tensions at the Ukraine-Russia border

By Aditi Sangal, Melissa Mahtani and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 9:06 p.m. ET, January 21, 2022
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11:10 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

A look back at the US diplomats Lavrov has met with during his 18-year tenure as Russia's foreign minister

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today to discuss escalating tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border.

Blinken is the latest in a long line of US diplomats to meet with Lavrov, a highly experienced diplomat who has served as Russian foreign minister since 2004. Before that, he was Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York from 1994 to 2004.

Here's a look back some of the US secretaries of State Lavrov has met with over the past 18 years:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shakes hands with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in May 2004 after their meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York. 
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shakes hands with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in May 2004 after their meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York. 

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov meet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, in Septembre 2008 in New York.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov meet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, in Septembre 2008 in New York.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchange documents formally bringing into force the landmark nuclear arms reduction pact START during the second day of the 47th Munich Security Conference in February 2011 in Munich, Germany.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchange documents formally bringing into force the landmark nuclear arms reduction pact START during the second day of the 47th Munich Security Conference in February 2011 in Munich, Germany. (Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak during a press conference in September 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak during a press conference in September 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. (Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talk to reporters in the Treaty Room before heading into meetings at the State Department in May 2017 in Washington, DC.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talk to reporters in the Treaty Room before heading into meetings at the State Department in May 2017 in Washington, DC.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shake hands at the conclusion of a joint news conference in the Franklin Room at the State Department in December 2019.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shake hands at the conclusion of a joint news conference in the Franklin Room at the State Department in December 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting, Friday, January 21 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting, Friday, January 21 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland. Alex Brandon/Pool/AP

11:06 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Here is a timeline of notable developments that led to escalated Ukraine border tensions

While tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border have been simmering for a long time, here's a timeline of notable developments over the last decade that culminated into the current escalation in tensions at the Ukraine-Russia border.

2013: Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych was under severe economic pressure from Russia to not join the European Union. And he pulled out of talks with the EU last minute, after a year of insisting that it was intent on signing a historic political and trade agreement that was aimed at creating closer political and economic ties and fostering economic growth among the nations of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, including Ukraine. This sparked weeks of violent protests in Kyiv.

2014: In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, an autonomous peninsula in southern Ukraine with strong Russian loyalties, on the pretext that it was defending its interests and those of Russian-speaking citizens.

2015: Shortly afterwards, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared their independence from Kyiv, prompting months of heavy fighting. Despite Kyiv and Moscow signing a peace deal in Minsk in 2015, brokered by France and Germany, there have been repeated ceasefire violations.

According to UN figures, there have been more than 3,000 conflict-related civilian deaths in eastern Ukraine since March 2014.

The European Union and US have imposed a series of measures in response to Russia's actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, including economic sanctions targeting individuals, entities and specific sectors of the Russian economy.

The Kremlin accuses Ukraine of stirring up tensions in the country's east and of violating the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

What's happening now: The US and NATO have described the movements and concentrations of troops in and around Ukraine as "unusual."

As many as 100,000 Russian troops have remained amassed at the Ukrainian border. US intelligence findings in December estimated that Russia could begin a military offensive in Ukraine "as soon as early 2022."

10:55 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Blinken will brief EU foreign ministers on Lavrov meeting

From CNN’s James Frater

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will brief European Union foreign ministers on Monday about his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. 

A senior EU official said in a briefing with journalists on Friday:

“The aim of this connection is to share with the European Union Foreign Ministers the latest on the dialogue between Russia and the United States. And, on the side of the EU, to share with Secretary Blinken, how we are advancing in our internal reflections.”

The EU foreign ministers will be meeting in Brussels in person and Blinken will join them virtually. 

When asked about the EU and its member states’ reaction should Russia further invade Ukraine, the official was adamant:

“Reaction will be very quick. The reaction will be extremely clear.”

“The implementation of the sanctions depends on what kind of sanctions we agree. Some of them take more attention, some of them can be implemented instantly,” the senior EU official added. “Normally, most of the sanctions are enforced the very day of the publication. But again, we are talking about contingency planning. We are talking about something - that cross our fingers - will not be necessary to take.”

The official reiterated the bloc’s call for Russia to de-escalate.

10:06 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Biden admitted that western allies are not entirely united on response to Russian aggression in Ukraine

Analysis by CNN's Luke McGee

US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia and Ukraine prior to a meeting with members of the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force to discuss the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on 20 January.
US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia and Ukraine prior to a meeting with members of the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force to discuss the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on 20 January. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden's admission that Western allies are not entirely united on how they would respond to a "minor" Russian incursion into Ukraine has sparked an uproar in Kiev.

They were also met with concern in Europe, where officials and observers said Biden's candid remarks had turned a spotlight on an uncomfortable truth at a dangerous moment.

Foreign diplomats and experts said Biden's comments were also an acknowledgment of a harsh reality: as tensions rise on the Ukrainian border, NATO allies are not all on the same page.

There is "some truth there, which didn't need to be said out loud," one NATO diplomat told CNN Thursday. "It's not like the Russians didn't know that, say, a cyber-attack against Ukraine wouldn't trigger a full-scale response."

This sentiment was echoed by a senior EU diplomat who said, "I think he was actually quite truthful in what he said. Whether it was politically OK, I don't know."

The fear is that Biden saying this publicly will give Russian President Vladimir Putin the green light to escalate what is already a very dangerous situation. Biden said in the same answer that he predicts Russia will "move in" to Ukraine, which warned earlier this week that the build-up of Russian troops near the border between the two nations was "almost completed."

The NATO diplomat who spoke to CNN said that there is a "lack of clarity" over what the specific response would be from NATO allies to specific Russian actions.

"There aren't yet staked out positions," the diplomat explained, but said it would probably "break out on the lines you would expect — US, UK, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Easterners would have a low-trigger threshold, everyone else a higher one."

Read the full analysis here.

9:37 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

US-Russia talks indicate "diplomacy has a chance to continue," CNN editor says

The takeaway from US-Russia meeting on Friday is that "diplomacy has a chance to continue," CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson said after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held their respective news conferences.

"I think it gives Russia what it's been asking for, which is the written response. It's been saying that's the sort of entry to the next round of negotiations, which Sergey Lavrov indicated was there," Robertson said Friday. "For all involved, it means the diplomacy has a chance to continue, both sides indicating that."

The difficulty, he pointed out, is that Russia already knows what the written answers are going to be — no giving into Russia's demands.

Some background: Russia has opposed increased NATO support for Ukraine and demands that foreign forces should withdraw from NATO member states Bulgaria and Romania.

Largely, the meeting has not provided much further clarity on the Ukraine tensions, Robertson said.

"It's very hard not to see" Russia's demand for written answers "as a clock-ticking exercise," he added. "Yet, it is also a path to potential diplomacy."

9:45 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Blinken says Russia's aggressions are at odds with their security interests

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pauses while speaking during a press conference after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 21 January in Geneva, Switzerland.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken pauses while speaking during a press conference after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 21 January in Geneva, Switzerland. (Alex Brandon/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised Russia’s sinking favorability ratings in eastern Ukraine when he met with his Russian counterpart in Geneva on Friday in an effort to point out that Russia’s aggressions have not been useful in advancing their security interests in the region.  

“I said, 'Mr. Lavrov, so many of the things you’ve done in recent years have precipitated virtually everything you say you want to prevent,'” Blinken said during a press conference on Friday. “Before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, seizing Crimea, going into the Donbass, Russia’s favorability ratings in Ukraine were 70%, now they’re 25 or 30%.” 

CNN has asked the US State Department about which specific polling the secretary was referring to. 

Blinken also pointed to the increased support for Ukraine joining NATO – which Russia adamantly opposes — that has largely been the result of Russia’s aggressions. 

“Before 2014, before they went and seized Crimea and went into the Donbass, support for Ukraine joining NATO was 25 or 30%, now it’s 60 %,” Blinken said.

Blinken also claimed that when Russia seized Crimea in 2014, it changed NATO's position on security in Europe.

“Based on Russia’s stated strategic interests and concerns, how have their actions advanced those concerns? On the contrary, it’s gone in the opposite of what Russia purports to want, and now if Russia renews its aggression against Ukraine, the outcome will simply be to reinforce the very things, the very trends that Russia expresses a concern about," he added. 

10:46 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Russia reiterates its demand for foreign troops to leave Bulgaria and Romania

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London

A British Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon stands at a NATO airport in Romania on 01 July 2021.
A British Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon stands at a NATO airport in Romania on 01 July 2021. (Christophe Gateau/picture alliance/Getty Images)

The Russian foreign ministry reiterated its security demand to the US and NATO, asking for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from NATO member states Bulgaria and Romania, the Russian foreign ministry said on Friday.

Both Bulgaria and Romania are on the Black Sea — close to Russia’s area of influence. Romania also borders Ukraine. 

The ministry said Moscow’s position was very clear and didn’t leave room for “ambiguous interpretations.”

“We are talking about the withdrawal of foreign forces, hardware, and weapons as well as other steps that will ensure that the setup in the countries that were not NATO members back in 1997 would be reverted to what it was back then,” the ministry said. “These include Bulgaria and Romania.”

On Thursday, the Dutch defense minister told parliament that the Netherlands would deploy two F-35 jets, along with support staff, to Bulgaria to increase NATO’s defense and deterrence capabilities in the region, in light of Russian troop build-up around Ukraine.

The deployment is expected to take place in April-May. The country also made available to NATO an amphibious transport ship. 

The Spanish minister of defense also offered to send fighter jets to Bulgaria and a warship to the Black Sea in light of the rising tensions.

8:31 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Ukraine defense minister accused Russia of bolstering Donbass separatists

From CNN's Katya Krebs in Kyiv

Russia has been sending military equipment to bolster pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbass region, the Ukrainian Defense ministry said in a statement on Friday.

“The Command of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation continues to increase the combat capabilities of pro-Russian occupation troops in the temporarily occupied territory in Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” the statement read. “Since the beginning of this month, the occupiers have secretly brought in more than 7,000 tons of fuel, several units of tanks and self-propelled artillery, other weapons and ammunition for artillery systems and mortars, by rail and road from the territory of the Russian Federation to the units of the 1st (Donetsk) and 2nd (Luhansk) army corps.”

The statement added: “The enemy units are being strengthened through the network of recruitment centers in Russia, who are actively recruiting mercenaries and sending them to the temporarily occupied territory in Donetsk and Luhansk regions after undergoing intensive training courses in training centers."

Some background:

Ukraine insists Russia is seeking to destabilize the country with the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, recently saying a coup plot, involving Ukrainians and Russians, had been uncovered.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that a planned coup could be part of Russia's plan ahead of a military invasion. "External military pressure goes hand in hand with domestic destabilization of the country," he said.

Tensions between the two countries have been exacerbated by a deepening Ukrainian energy crisis that Kyiv believes Moscow has purposefully provoked.

8:55 a.m. ET, January 21, 2022

Blinken: US prepared for another Biden-Putin meeting "if it proves useful and productive"

From CNN's Michael Conte

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meet in Geneva, Switzerland on 21 January.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meet in Geneva, Switzerland on 21 January. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said US is "fully prepared" for another Biden-Putin summit “if it proves useful and productive.”

“If we conclude and the Russians conclude that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between them, we’re certainly prepared to do that,” said Blinken at a press conference after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. 

The meeting lasted an hour and a half. Blinken held his press conference after Lavrov.

The top US diplomat said that after the US shares its written responses to Russia’s concerns, there will be further conversations “at least at the level of foreign ministers.”