US says its top diplomat Antony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov as hundreds of shells fly in eastern Ukraine, ratcheting up tensions in the highly combustible corner of Europe.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accepted an invitation to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov next week "provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine," the State Department has said.
The meeting, which was initially suggested by the United States, was initiated "because we believe the only responsible way to resolve this crisis is through diplomacy and dialogue," State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday.
Blinken said earlier on Thursday he had sent a letter to Lavrov proposing a meeting next week in Europe.
US President Joe Biden will host a call on Friday about the Ukraine crisis with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Britain, the European Union, and NATO.
Meanwhile, US officials held discussions with Saudi Arabia about a "collaborative approach" to managing potential market pressures stemming from a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the White House said.
"In Saudi Arabia, State Department Special Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein joined Brett McGurk (coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa) to discuss a collaborative approach to managing potential market pressures stemming from a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine," the White House said in a statement.
Shella hit kindergarten in eastern Ukraine
Fears of a new war in Europe resurged on Thursday as violence spiked in a long-running standoff in eastern Ukraine that some worried could provide the spark for a wider conflict.
Separatists in the Luhansk region reported an increase in Ukrainian government shelling along the tense line of contact. Separatist official Rodion Miroshnik said rebel forces returned fire.
Ukraine disputed the claim, saying separatists had shelled its forces but they didn't fire back.
The Ukrainian military command said shells hit a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two teachers, and cut power to half the town.
The head of the monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Yasar Halit Cevik, said it reported 500 explosions along the contact line from Wednesday evening to Thursday.
Cevik told the Security Council the tensions then appeared to ease, with about 30 blasts reported.
Russia's shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in Donbas hit a kindergarten, injured two teachers, and knocked out power in the village. The aggressor in Donbas is clear - Russia. (1/2)— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) February 17, 2022
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted that the kindergarten shelling “by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation."
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov countered with the same: "We have repeatedly warned that the excessive concentration of Ukrainian armed forces in the immediate vicinity of the line of demarcation, coupled with possible provocations, could pose a terrible danger."
A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany helped end the worst of the fighting, but regular skirmishes have continued and a political settlement has stalled.
World dignitaries have raced for solutions but suspicions between East and West only seemed to grow, as NATO allies rejected Russian assertions it was pulling back troops from exercises that had fuelled fears of an attack.
Russia is believed to have built up some 150,000 military forces around Ukraine's borders.
Concerns escalated in the West over what exactly Russia is doing with those troops — including an estimated 60 percent of the overall Russian ground forces.
The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade but has long considered Ukraine its sphere of influence and NATO's eastward expansion an existential threat.
China, a key Russian geopolitical ally, accused Washington of "playing up and sensationalising the crisis and escalating tensions." Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the US should "take seriously and address Russia’s legitimate and reasonable concerns on security assurance."