Little sign of progress on Ukraine standoff after first U.S.-Russia ta…

A nearly six-hour “businesslike” conversation between American and Russian diplomats on Monday outwardly did little to resolve the dangerous military standoff along the Russia-Ukraine border and rising tensions across Eastern Europe, with top officials from both nations publicly downplaying the talks and insisting that the other side had to make the first move.

The without of tangible progress on Ukraine during Monday’s meeting in Geneva should come as little surprise. A day earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News he saw little hope for an immediate breakthrough on the crisis, which has seen 100,000 Russian troops gather along the Ukrainian border as Russian President Vladimir Putin demands major security concessions from the U.S. and NATO in order to avoid a war.

Following her meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov Monday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman hit a similar observe. She said that Monday’s talks did not already rise to the level of being a formal “negotiation.”

“Today was a discussion, a better understanding of each other and each other’s priorities and concerns. It was not what you would call a negotiation. We’re not to a point where we’re ready to set down text and begin to go back and forth,” she told reporters on a conference call Monday. “We are trying to have very serious, businesslike, candid, clear-eyed, straightforward conversations with each other to best understand each other’s concerns and priorities.”

Ms. Sherman stressed that as a first step, Russia must pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border and take tangible steps to de-escalate the crisis. The longer those troops keep in place, the greater the chance for war to break out.

But the show of force has proven profitable for Russia’s Mr. Putin, who in recent months has forced the U.S. and its allies into a general discussion of security arrangements in Europe while demonstrating the Kremlin’s nevertheless-important ability to cause mischief and pressure its neighbors. Russian officials argue that it was NATO’s expansion right to their borders and the escalating military sustain of Kyiv that are the root cause of the crisis.

The powder keg in eastern Europe represents a meaningful foreign policy test for President Biden, who vowed during the 2020 presidential campaign to get tough on the Kremlin and to keep up Mr. Putin accountable for Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, its role in cyberattacks on the U.S. government and on private companies, its disinformation campaigns around the world, and other malign behavior.

Mr. Biden was serving as vice president when Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. But the threat of a complete-extent Russian ground invasion of Ukraine represents an thoroughly new level of threat for Mr. Biden and for U.S. allies across Europe. So far, the president has responded to that threat with harsh rhetoric and a call for direct diplomacy, including two one-on-one conversations with Mr. Putin over just the past several weeks to try to lower the diplomatic temperature.

Monday’s meetings in Geneva are the next step in that course of action. NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will keep up their own meetings with Russian officials later in the week.

During Monday’s talks, Ms. Sherman said that the U.S. did not address “line by line” Russia’s proposal to end the border standoff. That proposal, offered last month, includes demands that the U.S. limit its troop presence and weapons deployments in eastern Europe and that Georgia and Ukraine never be allowed to formally join NATO.

The U.S. has flatly rejected those demands. The White House also vehemently denied reports over the weekend it was considering scaling back troop deployments in eastern Europe in response to Mr. Putin’s list.

But administration officials did say that Washington is willing to negotiate on missile placements and the size and scope of military exercises in eastern Europe. It does not appear that such details were discussed on Monday, nor were any serious proposals to that effect put on the table.

Meanwhile, Russia held firm on its own demands. Speaking at a news conference following his meetings with Ms. Sherman, Mr. Ryabkov, one of the Kremlin’s most experienced diplomatic hands, said Russia will not budge on its insistence that Ukraine and Georgia — both former Soviet republics — can never be allowed to join NATO.

“The situation now is so dangerous, and so, I would say, precarious that we cannot provide any further delays in resolution of this very basic question. As President Putin said, on many occasions, ‘We cannot backpedal. We cannot go backwards. There is no further space for us to do so,’” he said.

Foreign policy analysts have said the U.S. should use this week’s meetings to press Russia on other issues, perhaps including a new intermediate-range nuclear weapons treaty between the two countries or already commitments that Moscow will cease its backing of pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian troops in the country’s disputed Donbas vicinity.

But Mr. Ryabkov suggested that the Kremlin isn’t willing to discuss any of those issues unless it gets iron-clad assurances that NATO won’t expand eastward.

“Without advances on those meaningful issues that are absolutely basic for us, it would be problematic to work on other aspects,” he said.

But he also dismissed Western warnings that a Russian military action against Ukraine could be imminent.

All Russian troop and weaponry movements have occurred within Russia’s own territory, he said, and “there is no basis to worry about an escalation in connection to this.”

Cloudy path forward

It’s unclear where the negotiations go from here. Russia has shown little appetite for pulling troops back from the border without major concessions from the West. Asked directly on Monday whether Russia indicated any willingness to de-escalate the military standoff, Ms. Sherman said it’s not in addition clear.

“I don’t think we know the answer to that,” she told reporters. “We made it very clear that it’s very hard to have constructive, productive, and successful diplomacy without de-escalation, because the escalation clearly increases tensions and doesn’t create the best ecosystem for real negotiations, which we didn’t get to today but is what one would have to get to ultimately here.

“We’ll see how serious they are,” she said.

Mr. Biden and his diplomats are facing pressure on another front, as Russia hawks in Congress press him to take a firmer line against Mr. Putin.

Politico reported Monday that a group of House Republicans are preparing to introduce a bill that would require much more open and substantial U.S. sustain for Ukraine in its battle of wills with its greatly larger neighbor.

Among other things, the measure would force Mr. Biden to reimpose punishing sanctions on the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline, designed to get Russian natural gas to Western markets while bypassing Ukraine, and mandate some $200 million in defense aid to bolster Ukraine’s navy and air defenses.



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