In talks on Ukraine, US and Russia standoff over NATO enlargement

GENEVA – The United States and Russia emerged from seven hours of urgent negotiations on Monday and took seemingly irreconcilable positions on the future of the NATO alliance and the deployment of troops and weapons in Europe from the ‘Is, now the tensions high amid fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russia’s chief negotiator, insisted after the meeting that it was “absolutely mandatory” that Ukraine “never, never, never become” a member of the NATO.

Her American counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, reiterated that the United States could never make such a commitment because “we will not allow anyone to close NATO‘s open door policy”, and she said the United States and its allies won’t wait if Russia seeks to change international borders “by force”.

The stalemate has left the fate of Ukraine – which was not invited to bilateral talks – in doubt, with Russia’s military intentions far from being resolved following hastily scheduled meetings between Ms. Sherman and M. Ryabkov Sunday evening and Monday.

Yet as Russia has massed around 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, Ryabkov told reporters “we have no intention of invading Ukraine”. And both sides have offered positive feedback.

Ms Sherman, speaking to reporters by phone after Monday’s meeting, said she saw some areas where the two countries could make progress, and Mr Ryabkov called the talks “very professional, deep, concrete” and that their tone “makes one more optimistic.”

Talks will continue on Wednesday in Brussels, when Russian officials meet with NATO allies, and on Thursday in Vienna, at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes both Russia and Ukraine as well as the United States. Ryabkov said the outcome of those talks would determine whether or not Russia was willing to continue diplomacy.

And he warned that if the West did not accept Russia’s demands to reduce NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, it would face unspecified consequences that would endanger “the security of the United States. ‘whole European continent’.

Ryabkov’s ambivalent message, alternating between cautiously conciliatory and vaguely threatening, corresponded to new assessments of Russia’s timetable for possible intervention in Ukraine, with US officials remaining deeply concerned about a possible invasion.

But Russian forces in Ukraine have not grown in recent weeks as much as intelligence officials predicted weeks ago, US officials told The New York Times, reporting that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin did He still might not have decided whether to proceed with an attack or consider something less conventional than dumping troops across the border.

U.S. officials say they’re preparing for everything from a full-scale invasion, to partial incursions, to cyber attacks meant to cripple the country.

“He tried to maintain a flexible position that would allow Putin to decide one way or the other,” said Kadri Liik, Russia specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, of the approach of Mr. Ryabkov. “It will be Putin’s decision whether or not to continue these talks on the terms the United States makes available.”

Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from Crimea and fomented a separatist war in the east of the country after the pro-Western revolution in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, in 2014. The war in eastern Ukraine continues to simmer, having made more than 13,000 Ukrainians on both sides. .

Over the past year, Mr Putin has increasingly presented Western support for Ukraine as an existential threat, claiming that the neighboring country, formerly a Soviet republic, is in the process of becoming an ‘anti-Russia’ that the West could use to attack or otherwise. weaken his country.

But Russia’s goals go far beyond Ukraine’s future, a position it put forward in an extraordinary set of demands to the West last month that sought to bring back the military presence of Ukraine. NATO at 1990’s levels. He also called for assurances that NATO would not expand eastward or retain forces or weapons in the former Soviet states that have since joined NATO. .

On Monday, US officials said they saw openings to deepen the conversation with Russia – for example on the relaunch of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States abandoned in 2019, after years of accuse Russia of violating its terms. The treaty prohibited the deployment of missiles capable of launching a nuclear strike with almost no warning.

In Monday’s talks, the US side included some ideas regarding restrictions on where the US and Russia could locate their missiles.

Right now, the United States does not have intermediate-range missiles in Europe, so it would be easy to agree to ban them again, experts say. But for decades it has retained a range of tactical nuclear weapons in Belgium, Italy, Germany and Turkey, and Russia could also call for their ban.

Ms. Sherman, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations and has often been given some of the most difficult negotiations in the United States, said she had made it clear that Washington was willing to discuss “ways to fix reciprocal limits on the size and scope of military forces. exercises and improve the transparency of these exercises.

It would be one way of trying to move Russian forces away from Ukraine’s borders.

“The United States is determined to establish a meaningful reciprocal dialogue with Russia,” Sherman told reporters on Monday, underscoring the Biden administration’s strategy to maintain diplomatic engagement with Russia in order to avoid war. “We must give diplomacy and dialogue the time and space to move forward on such complex issues.”

Even without any American concessions, Monday’s talks were already a sort of victory for the Kremlin, as they brought the issue of NATO enlargement, which has long irritated Mr. Putin, to the fore of the issues facing him. confronted policymakers in Washington.

Ms Liik, the analyst, said the seriousness with which the United States appeared to prepare for Monday’s talks – sending a large delegation including officials from the Department of Defense, State Department and National Security Council, who coordinates policy in the White House. – sent an important signal to Moscow.

“We felt that the American side took the Russian proposals very seriously and studied them in depth,” Ryabkov said. “Now things are called by their names, and that in itself has a healing effect on our relationship with the West.”

Ryabkov said Russia would decide whether or not to continue diplomacy after this week’s meetings, warning that “the risks of a possible escalation of the confrontation cannot be underestimated”.

But Ryabkov was vague as to the exact consequences if the United States refused Russia’s demands. He repeatedly said that Russia did not intend to attack Ukraine and that there was “no reason to fear an escalation scenario in this regard.”

But he also said that the increase in the West’s military activity in Ukraine and the Black Sea region had caused Russia to change its military position in the region, and that it was concerned about ” deliberate provocations ”from Ukraine.

Western officials have said they believe Russia could fabricate a “provocation” as a pretext for an invasion.

Describing the consequences of what would happen if diplomacy fails, Ryabkov reiterated Putin’s words that the West would face a “military-technical response” from Russia. He said Russia would not make public what that response would look like, as it would lead to new threats of sanctions, but he indicated that it could involve further deployments of certain weapons systems.

Ms Sherman, cautious after a long fighting career with Russian officials, was asked after the meeting if she had a realistic hope for a diplomatic solution.

“It is very difficult for diplomats to do the work that we are doing if you have no hope,” she said. “So of course I have hope.”

She paused briefly. “But what matters most to me are the results.”

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