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The top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken said on Wednesday he will speak with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov "in the coming days" and press him to respond to an offer Washington has made to secure the release of American citizens detained by Moscow.

"My call to Foreign Minister Lavrov will not be a negotiation about Ukraine. Any negotiation regarding Ukraine is for its government and people to determine," Blinken told reporters during a news conference, TURAN's Washington correspondent reports from the State Department.

"As we’ve said from the beginning, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine," Blinken insisted.

The U.S. has put "a substantial proposal on the table” to facilitate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, two Americans detained in Russia.

The planned call would be the first between Blinken and Lavrov since the start of the war in Ukraine. The secretary said he would also make appeals on the tentative deal for grain exports reached last week.

According to Blinken, the war in Ukraine has weakened Russia "profoundly.”  The last progress Russian troops made in the easternmost Donbas region of Ukraine, which the Kremlin has focused on since failing to take the capital of Kyiv earlier in the war, came at a “huge cost” in terms of lives and materials.

Costs continue to climb – thousands of civilians killed or wounded; 13 million Ukrainians forced to flee their homes; historic cities literally pounded into rubble; food shortages, skyrocketing food prices around the world – "all this because President Putin was determined to conquer another country," Blinken said.

Putin, he added, has failed in that goal: "Ukraine has not and will not be conquered. It will remain sovereign and independent."

For Blinken, the Ukrainian people are more determined than ever to defend their homeland and preserve their culture, and many countries throughout the world have condemned Moscow'’s actions. NATO has become more united since the conflict began and is poised to grow, as Sweden and Finland are in the process of joining the alliance.

Blinken also said the economic sanctions that have been put in place against Russia are having a “powerful and growing” effect. The Russian government, he said, has been “cherry-picking” data to portray the country as being in a better position than it is. Highly educated professionals in fields such as energy and technology and more than 1,000 companies have left Russia since the war started.

Blinken said Russian imports have dropped more than 50 percent this year, and imports from Asia are not making up for losses from Europe. “What that also means is that Russia can’t manufacture products for Russian citizens or for export and will increasingly lose markets overseas.” The Russian budget, the secretary said, is in deficit and that half of the Kremlin’s sovereign wealth has been frozen overseas.

He also reminded that Russian leaders have recently raised alarms with shifting goals for the war. Lavrov reportedly said last week that Russia’s aims go beyond the Donbas.

For Blinken, the Russian government is “laying the groundwork” to annex additional Ukrainian territory by taking steps such as installing illegitimate proxy officials and forcing residents to apply for Russian citizenship there.

Washington expects Russian-installed leaders will hold “sham referendums” to create an appearance that the people living in the conquered territory want to join Russia, legitimizing their annexation. “We must and we will act quickly to make clear to Russia that these tactics will not work,” Blinken said, adding that annexation by force is a “gross violation” of the United Nations Charter.

TURAN's Washington correspondent asked secretary Blinken about increasing calls to the Biden administration regarding labeling Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The State Department, he said in response, "is obligated" to follow the law: "Our task is to try to take these criteria that Congress has established and compare them against the facts to make sure that the facts in a particular situation actually meet the criteria that are established in law."

Meanwhile, he said, the U.S. is aligned with dozens of countries around the world across four continents on the most powerful sanctions, export controls, "that I think have ever been levied."

"We’ve also curtailed international assistance and foreign aid. And the costs that have been imposed on Russia by us and by other countries are absolutely in line with the consequences that would follow from designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. So the practical effects of what we’re doing are the same," he added.

"In terms of the impact we’re having, it is very much in line with anything that the [state sponsor of terrorism] designation would enable us to do. We’re basically doing everything that we would need to do and want to do," he explained.

"So again, what we’re focused on is making sure that we are meeting the law and the criteria set out in the law, and making sure we’re having the strongest possible impact," he concluded.

Alex Raufoglu

Washington D.C.

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