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U.S.-Russia talks on Ukraine end after eight hours, without agreement

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov stand, masked, before their nations' flags.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Geneva on Monday.
(Denis Balibouse / Pool Photo)

Skeptical U.S. and Russian officials Monday held eight hours of “frank, forthright” discussions aimed at averting war in Ukraine but came away with little more than an agreement to continue to talk.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, who led the U.S. delegation in the Geneva meeting, declined to say whether she believed Russia’s assurances that it has no intention of invading the former Soviet republic. And Russia voiced anger at the U.S. insistence that it will not stop expansion of NATO in Europe.

Sherman said she told her Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, that Moscow must “de-escalate” by moving its estimated 100,000 troops away from the border with Ukraine. She did not set a timetable for such action but repeated the U.S. threat that if Russia invades the neighboring country — as it did in 2014 — it will face severe economic and diplomatic sanctions.

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“It’s a very stark choice,” Sherman told reporters in a telephone news conference after the session concluded. “We’ll see how serious they are.... The Russians would tell you that [Monday’s talks] were an open bid for serious negotiation. We will see if that is indeed the case.”

The Biden administration, already confronting deteriorated relations with an increasingly aggressive Russia, offered that it was prepared to discuss missile deployments in Europe and the size, scope and “transparency” of joint U.S.-NATO military exercises in the region, Sherman said. Any steps by the U.S. and its allies would have be be met by “reciprocal” action by Russia, she said.

The U.S. is also willing to attempt to revive an agreement along the lines of the Intermediate -Range Nuclear Forces treaty that was signed by President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev but that has lapsed, Sherman said.

Limiting expansion of NATO to exclude many of the Eastern European nations that President Vladimir Putin considers to be part of his sphere of influence, however, is a non-starter, she said.

“We have a long way to go,” Sherman added.

Ryabkov sounded an even more pessimistic note in a parallel news conference.

He said the American diplomats seemed unwilling to take into account Moscow’s interests, according to the Sputnik news agency. Demands such as barring some countries from joining NATO are a priority “that we cannot back away from.” Without progress on such issues, “work on other aspects, for all their importance, will be under question,” Ryabkov said.

Expectations for Monday’s special meeting of the U.S-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue were low from well beforehand, when, in a pair of conversations — one by phone, one by video — Presidents Biden and Putin agreed to convene the ad hoc body,

The Biden administration, along with most of Europe, is increasingly alarmed at military movement by Russian forces that Western officials worry could be the precursor to another invasion of Ukraine. Russia invaded in 2014 and continues to occupy Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula; Putin claims the annexed region as Russian. And Moscow is backing armed separatist rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Thousands of people have been killed.

Diplomats have said it is unlikely any rapprochement with Russia can occur as long as the threat of invasion remains alive. Asked what the West wants to see that would qualify as “de-escalation,” Sherman said the Russian troops along the border with Ukraine had to “return to their barracks.” She did not elaborate.

Sherman and her entourage will continue the rounds of diplomacy on Tuesday, with consultations in Brussels
with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and various officials from the European Union. A session of the Russia-NATO Council follows on Wednesday, and a meeting of the Permanent Council of the 57-member Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna on Thursday.

Sherman sought to allay accusations in Moscow and some concerns in European capitals that Washington was attempting to make deals without consultation of the allies.

“We will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, about NATO without NATO,” she said. “As we say to our partners and allies, ‘nothing about you without you.’ ”


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