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U.S. and Germany touch base before meeting with Russia about Ukraine tensions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration is gearing up for a week of diplomacy with Russia. The goal is to fend off a new invasion of Ukraine. First, though, the U.S. needs to make sure it's on the same page with key partners in Europe - among them, Germany, which is finishing up a controversial pipeline project with Russia. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Russia has been massing troops along Ukraine's borders, and Vladimir Putin has been issuing a long list of grievances about NATO's post-Cold War expansion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accuses Russia of creating this crisis and pushing a false narrative that Ukraine or the West are to blame for the latest tensions.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: That's a little bit like the fox saying it had no choice but to attack the henhouse because somehow the hens presented a threat to it.

KELEMEN: Blinken says he prefers diplomacy to talk Russia down from taking over more Ukrainian territory. U.S. and Russian officials will meet in Geneva next week. There will also be talks between NATO and Russia and discussions about Ukraine in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As he gears up for this flurry of diplomacy, Blinken has been coordinating with partners. Today, he hosted Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, who spoke through an interpreter.

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ANNALENA BAERBOCK: (Through interpreter) We are doing everything we can in order to avoid further escalation, further aggressions and a breach of international and European law.

KELEMEN: Germany is a key country. Along with France, Germany helped negotiate agreements back in 2014 to try to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine. It's also building a pipeline that critics say would make Europe too dependent on Russian gas and hurt Ukraine's economy. So far, gas is not flowing through Nord Stream 2, and Blinken says he can't imagine it will if Russia reinvades Ukraine.

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BLINKEN: Some may see Nord Stream 2 as leverage that Russia can use against Europe. In fact, it's leverage for Europe to use against Russia.

BLINKEN: Baerbock wasn't making any firm promises about the future of the pipeline but says European countries are preparing tough financial measures in case Russia makes a move. The European Union's top diplomat, Joseph Borrell, reinforced that threat today as he took a helicopter ride to eastern Ukraine.

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JOSEPH BORRELL: Our main interest, our main concern and our main purpose is to try to de-escalate the tensions through these negotiations and others that will follow but also to a strong stance and firm position on supporting Ukraine. Both things have to go hand in hand.

KELEMEN: Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called Borrell's visit very timely against the backdrop of, quote, "Russian blackmail, escalation and threats."

DMYTRO KULEBA: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: Russia has no right to divide Europe into areas of influence, Kuleba said, and it doesn't have the right to define what kind of relations Ukraine and Europe will have. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY JEWEL'S "THE KEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.