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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting on Jan. 21.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

The United States has promised to give Russia a written reply to its security demands next week, a document that may well determine whether President Vladimir Putin decides to order an invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously said the U.S. would not provide a written answer to Moscow’s demands, which the Kremlin published last month. Among other things, Russia is seeking a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The concession came after a 90-minute meeting Friday in Geneva between Mr. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But Mr. Blinken suggested that putting Washington’s position to paper would not involve any surprises. He said the U.S. and its allies remain firm in their opposition to giving Moscow any kind of veto over who joins NATO.

Next up might be another meeting between Mr. Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden. The two met in June, also in Geneva, after Russia built up an invasion-sized force around Ukraine, only to have Mr. Putin pull some of the troops back after securing the summit.

The June meeting saw both men express a desire for better relations between their countries, though no new agreements were reached.

“If we conclude and the Russians conclude that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between [Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin], we’re certainly prepared to do that,” Mr. Blinken told reporters Friday.

The current escalation around Ukraine is considered much more serious than last year’s, both in terms of the military equipment Russia has moved toward its neighbour and the demands and rhetoric coming from Moscow. Mr. Putin has made it clear he wants to redraw the post-Cold War security arrangement in Europe, which has been shaped by NATO’s eastward expansion, growing from 16 members when the Berlin Wall fell to 30 today.

“I can’t say whether or not we are on the right path,” Mr. Lavrov told a separate news conference after Friday’s talks. “We will understand this when we get the American response on paper to all the points in our proposals.”

In addition to its demands regarding Ukraine, Russia also wants to see NATO pull back its forces from countries that joined the alliance after 1997. “We’re talking about the withdrawal of foreign forces, equipment and weapons and other steps to return to the 1997 configuration,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday, specifically naming Bulgaria and Romania.

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The demand was immediately rebuffed by the alliance. “NATO will not renounce our ability to protect and defend each other, including with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance. Russia’s demands would create first- and second-class NATO members, which we cannot accept,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said.

Several eastern NATO members said Friday that they planned to rush deliveries of weapons to the Ukrainian military. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania said they would jointly supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. And Czech Defence Minister Jana Cernochova said she would propose delivering artillery shells to Ukraine.

The meeting between Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lavrov came as Russia continued to move troops and equipment toward its 2,000-kilometre-long border with Ukraine. Mr. Putin has said Russia will respond in a “military-technical” way if its security demands are not met.

Military analysts have told The Globe and Mail that Russia has almost tripled the usual number of combat-ready units it has stationed around Ukraine. In addition to the buildup in Russian bases just east of Ukraine, Russian forces are massing in occupied Crimea, in the south, and in Belarus, a Russian ally to the north of Ukraine.

On Friday, Ukraine’s defence intelligence service said Russia was also “actively recruiting” mercenaries, who were undergoing “intensive training” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has been under the control of a Moscow-backed militia for the past eight years. Both Russia and Ukraine have accused the other of planning large-scale attacks in the area, and Ukraine said Russia has also been moving tanks and self-propelled artillery into Donbas since the start of January.

Ukraine’s national police also reported that dozens of schools around the country – as well as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office and several subway stations in Kyiv – were briefly closed at different times this month owing to anonymous bomb threats. Kyiv resident Daria Kaleniuk, who heads an anti-corruption organization, said her child’s school was one of those that had been recently shut.

“For children it was quite a stress – some were crying. It was also a stress for the teachers. Is that how Kremlin tests our nerves?” Ms. Kaleniuk wrote on Twitter.

Ukraine was also hit by a massive cyberattack last week that knocked out key government websites. Kyiv has accused Russia of being behind the attack, which it said was part of a “hybrid war” being waged by the Kremlin.

Reflecting his country’s increasingly anxious mood, Mr. Zelensky – who on Wednesday gave a speech telling Ukrainians not to panic – spoke in hypothetical terms about Russia invading and occupying the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which, like much of eastern and southern Ukraine, has a large Russian-speaking population.

“I will say realistically if Russia decides to enhance their escalation, of course they are going to do this on those territories where historically there are people who used to have family links to Russia,” Mr. Zelensky told The Washington Post in an interview that was published Friday and quickly picked up by Ukrainian media. “Kharkiv, which is under Ukraine government control, could be occupied. Russia needs a pretext: They will say that they are protecting the Russian-speaking population.”

Anton Grushetskyi, deputy director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, a polling firm, said that despite such talk, many Ukrainians still find it hard to believe that Russia might launch a full-scale attack on their country. “A lot of Ukrainians cannot believe in a Russian invasion,” he said. “They think Russia is an aggressor, but they are more concerned with daily issues like low salaries and high prices.”

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