Top US and Russian diplomats agreed to keep talking even as they acknowledged a first round of security discussions did little to resolve their differences over Russia’s continued troop buildup near Ukraine or Moscow’s concern about the possibility that NATO may expand farther east.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov repeated Russia’s insistence it has no plans to invade Ukraine, even as it masses more than 100 000 troops on the border. He described the talks as “businesslike and professional,” while US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman called them “frank and forthright.”
“We are ready to continue discussions with Russia on bilateral issues as soon as practicable,” Sherman told reporters afterward, adding that Washington would assess the best way forward later this week after the US and its NATO allies meet with Russia in Brussels.
Although the talks appeared to leave room for further negotiation, the relatively upbeat tone of the two sides after eight hours of discussions in Geneva — which the US insisted would deal only with bilateral issues, not Ukraine — couldn’t disguise a failure to reach any breakthrough on key concerns.
Russia repeated its insistence that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation must never let Ukraine or other ex-Soviet states such as Georgia join the alliance, calling it an issue of national security. The US says every nation has the right to decide its alliances and that Russian troops continue to threaten an invasion of Ukraine.
“We were firm in pushing back on security proposals that are simply non-starters for the US,” Sherman said. “We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy.”
Although the US says every nation has the right to decide its alliances, Russia believes it’s “wrong to make this freedom an absolute one. It is limited,” Ryabkov said.
Sherman suggested any major breakthrough would take at least several weeks if not longer, and she said the US was open to talking about the size and scope of future military exercises as well as ideas about the placement of intermediate-range missile systems in Europe. While Russia isn’t setting deadlines, it needs quick progress in the talks, Ryabkov said.
“Our businesslike and professional dialogue of course makes us more optimistic, but the key issues remain unresolved,” he told reporters. Russia would continue military exercises on its territory, he said, indicating the Kremlin isn’t yet prepared to pull its troops back from the border.
“The situation is so dangerous, that we cannot afford any further delays in resolution of this fundamental question” of ensuring Ukraine never joins NATO, Ryabkov said, although he added that “Russia has no plans, intentions or reasons to attack Ukraine.”
Negotiations now shift to Brussels for Russian consultations with NATO on Wednesday, followed by discussions in Vienna under the framework of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe a day later. Ryabkov said those talks will determine if negotiations can be sustained.
The two sides remain far apart, with the threat of war hanging over Ukraine and the possibility of large-scale economic sanctions against Moscow being raised in response.
Russia is insisting on legally binding guarantees of a halt to NATO enlargement and an end to the alliance’s military presence in eastern and central European nations that joined the bloc since 1997. The US has dismissed that as unrealistic, offering instead to curtail missile deployments and exercises in the region.
Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukraine border has prompted warnings in Washington and Kyiv of the risk of a further incursion following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin denies it’s planning to attack, but says it’s responding to increased NATO activity on its borders and the threat of a Ukrainian offensive against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Ukraine has rejected accusations it plans an attack.
The US and its allies have threatened to impose punishing sanctions on Russia if it invades.
Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had played down the possibility of any immediate breakthroughs. Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin decided last month to make a major diplomatic push to resolve their differences.
The US and its European allies are discussing a range of retaliatory measures if Putin does invade Ukraine, including cutting off Russia from Swift, the international payments system, limiting Russian banks’ ability to convert currencies and imposing export controls on advanced technologies used in aviation, semiconductors and other components, as well as computers and other consumer goods in more extreme scenarios.
But concern among some big European nations about economic fallout raises the risk of a split with the US on how strongly to hit Russia with sanctions if it stages aggression against Ukraine, according to people familiar with the matter.