First round of US-Russia talks end with optimistic tone
Diplomats from Russia and the US wrapped up their first round of high-stakes talks over the Kremlin’s sweeping security demands amid the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, with both sides signalling an interest in continuing negotiations.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said nearly eight hours of talks in Geneva on Monday were “frank and forthright” but suggested any major breakthrough would take at least several weeks or longer.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov echoed the generally optimistic review, saying the talks were complex and professional, adding that he believed the US agreed to “very seriously” look at Moscow’s proposals.
“If Russia stays at the table and takes concrete steps to deescalate tension we believe we can achieve progress,” Sherman told reporters after talks concluded.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border, negotiations now shift to Brussels, where there will be Russian consultations with NATO on Wednesday and 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.
Despite the positive tone, the two sides still 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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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 build-up on the Ukraine border has prompted warnings in Washington and Kiev of the risk of an incursion into the ex-Soviet neighbour. 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 of any planned invasion.
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.
Russia, which in 2014 annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomented a standoff in Donbas which has claimed 14,000 lives so far, is fiercely opposed to the NATO ambitions of Ukraine and another ex-Soviet state, Georgia.
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 U.S. on how strongly to hit Russia with sanctions if it stages aggression against Ukraine, according to people familiar with the matter.