American and Russian diplomats kicked off negotiations in Geneva on Monday against the backdrop of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive buildup of troops and military equipment along Ukraine’s border and heightened tensions between the Washington and Moscow.
Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and his team arrived at the US diplomatic mission for talks with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her delegation over Putin’s demand that the West not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations to join NATO.
The Russian leader is also seeking guarantees that the US and its European allies will not deploy forces or missile systems in Ukraine.
The meeting is part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts that will continue through the week, including a NATO-Russia meeting Wednesday in Brussels and talks involving the multilateral Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Thursday in Vienna.
At an informal dinner Sunday night, Rybakov predicted “difficult” talks.
Sherman ”stressed the United States’ commitment to the international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, referring to Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance.
The statement also said Sherman “affirmed that the United States would welcome genuine progress through diplomacy.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tamped down expectations for the talks during appearances on Sunday morning news shows.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any breakthroughs in the coming week,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re going to be able to put things on the table. The Russians will do the same … and we will see if there are grounds for moving forward.”
But Blinken was adamant that no diplomatic solution can take place without significant reciprocity by Russia, including a de-escalation of military tensions on Ukraine’s eastern border.
“It’s hard to see making actual progress, as opposed to talking, in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head,” the secretary of state said. “So if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation – Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses.”
The West fears that the Russian buildup of more than 100,000 troops is preparation to invade Ukraine eight years after Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and backed pro-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, sparking fighting that has killed thousands since.
Ryabkov told the RIA news agency on Sunday that the US must provide “legal guarantees of the non-expansion of NATO and the elimination of everything that the alliance has created since 1997.”
“If they are unable to do this, they will face a worsening situation in their own security,” he said.
NATO invited Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to join the alliance in 1997.
Asked if Russia was prepared to compromise, Rybakov insisted: “The Americans should get ready to reach a compromise.”
With Post wires