U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to meet Wednesday in Brussels with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and top diplomats from several U.S. allies as the United States launches it plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is also participating in a meeting that includes German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi DiMaio, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
The Biden administration ended months of speculation about U.S. plans in Afghanistan by saying Tuesday it would withdraw remaining troops by September 11. That date is the anniversary of the 2001 attacks that saw al-Qaida terrorists hijack passenger planes and crash them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC.
The attacks prompted the United States to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in an effort that eventually grew to include more than 130,000 troops from 50 NATO and partner nations. Since 2015, the remaining forces, which now number fewer than 10,000, have been tasked with training and assisting Afghan security forces.
U.S. officials have said the decision to leave Afghanistan would be taken in conjunction with NATO allies.
Blinken began his visit to Brussels on Tuesday with a focus on Ukraine, saying the United States supports an autonomous Ukraine, as Western allies watch a Russian buildup of forces along the border between the two countries.
“The U.S. stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Blinken said, adding that he would discuss Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic aspirations” this week.
The White House said President Joe Biden also “emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” during a phone call Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The president voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” the White House said in a readout of the conversation, adding Biden “proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia.”
The Kremlin is overseeing the largest movement of Russian troops, tanks and missiles along the Ukrainian border since the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, according to Ukrainian and U.S. officials. Russia has conducted at least three military training exercises adjacent to the Ukrainian border since mid-March.
“This meeting is extremely timely given what is happening along the Ukrainian border with Russia,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said just before talks with Blinken. The Ukrainian foreign minister expressed confidence that Western countries would also act to temper Russian aggression, which he said would force Ukraine to pay too high a price if left unchecked.
Two U.S. warships are set to arrive in the Black Sea this week amid an escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed troops.
The conflict began when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since killed some 14,000 people, according to Ukraine’s government.
Blinken spoke with Stoltenberg about the situation Monday and said there was mutual agreement that “Russia must end its dangerous military buildup and ongoing aggression along Ukraine’s borders.”
Stoltenberg expressed support for Ukraine as he spoke alongside Kuleba on Tuesday, saying “NATO stands with Ukraine.”
“Russia’s considerable military buildup is unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning,” Stoltenberg said. “Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately.”
Kuleba said Ukraine “does not want war” and is “devoted to diplomatic and political means of settling the conflict.”
But while highlighting the support of NATO, Kuleba also said, “Should Russia take any reckless move or start a new spiral of violence, it will be costly in all senses.”