US looks to ward off Ukraine conflict in talks with Russia

High-stakes talks between the U.S. and Russia failed to yield a breakthrough Monday as the Biden administration tries to ward off an invasion of Ukraine.

Washington rejected demands from Moscow that NATO cease expansion and that Ukraine not be allowed to join the alliance. 

“We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open door policy,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said following an extraordinary session of the Strategic Stability Dialogue, the venue for the Geneva meeting.

And Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed U.S. and allies’ alarm that Moscow’s massing of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border raised the risk of war.

“We explained to our counterparts that there were no plans or intentions to — quote, unquote — attack Ukraine,” Ryabkov told reporters. “There is no single reason to be afraid of any escalatory scenario in this regard.”

Yet both sides called for further discussions on other security considerations, signaling opportunity for cooperation to tamp down heightened tensions.

“Today was a discussion, a better understanding of each other and each other’s priorities and concerns,” Sherman said. 

The Biden administration has raised the possibility of a bilateral agreement on missile systems similar to the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which the U.S. withdrew from under the Trump administration, and potentially setting limits on the size and scope of military exercises as a means of convincing Russia to reduce its troop buildup on the border with Ukraine. 

The White House has threatened harsh economic sanctions should Russia launch a military incursion into Ukraine. 

Sherman, who led the discussions for the U.S., described the talks as “frank and forthright” and said that both sides agreed to talk again soon without laying out any specific plans. 

U.S. officials lowered expectations for the talks going into the meeting, which took place after two phone calls between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in less than a month.

 “I don’t expect any breakthroughs will be reached on Wednesday. I don’t expect any breakthroughs on Thursday,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing Monday afternoon, referring to separate talks with Moscow planned for later this week. “This is the beginning of a diplomatic process.”

Sherman expressed hope that future talks would help reduce tensions along Ukraine’s border, but she said that U.S. officials received no indication during Monday’s session that Russia planned to de-escalate by drawing down its soldiers. 

“It’s very hard for diplomats to do the work we do if we don’t have hope,” she told reporters following the talks with Ryabkov, which spanned more than seven hours. 

Putin’s ultimate motivation, meanwhile, is a mystery. 

Experts and officials have questioned whether he amassed troops at Ukraine’s border as a step toward invading or more as a means of extracting concessions from the U.S. and NATO.  

“Up until now, we haven’t seen any change in the Russian force posture on the border with Ukraine, and it’s not clear what would induce the Russians to do that,” said Angela Stent, an expert in U.S. and European relations with Russia. “The fundamental problem here is nobody is completely sure why Putin manufactured this crisis.”

The U.S. will join NATO allies on Wednesday in Brussels for a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council and then in Vienna on Thursday, where both Russia and Ukraine will be present at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the administration views the meetings as a “set of conversations” and that officials would be able to assess where things stand at the end of the week. 

Underscoring a message that the administration has tried to hammer home, Psaki also said no discussions about allies’ security would be had without their input. 

“No talks about Europe without Europe,” she said. “No talks about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

William Taylor, vice president of Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace, said public statements by U.S. and Russian officials on Monday indicate some optimism that areas of cooperation can be achieved, in particular concerns about both sides of missile deployments on the continent and risk reduction around military exercises. 

“There’s some optimism that, if that’s really the concern that the Russians have about missiles, or being invaded by the Ukrainians, that can be addressed. It sounded like there was some agreement on that,” he said. “I would hope, at the end of the week after all these other conversations take place, that the Russians and the Americans and the Europeans and the rest of NATO allies would agree to pursue either or both, ideally both of these treaties.”

Taylor, a former top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, further said that despite the talks taking place in the context of Russia’s massive military buildup against Ukraine, he didn’t view the meetings themselves as an American “concession.” 

“I don’t see conversations that lead to an understanding of each side’s concerns about the other — I don’t see that as a concession. I think it’s valuable, from a diplomatic standpoint, and from a national security standpoint, it’s valuable to get information on what the other side is thinking,” he said.

Stent said that the prospect of discussions about a new missile agreement or a new agreement on conventional forces in Europe make sense “as long as the U.S. holds firm on things that are unreasonable,” such as reducing NATO’s footprint.

Yet Republicans have seized on the atmosphere of the meetings to attack Biden as weak on the world stage, a key theme in their 2022 midterm election strategy.

“President Biden’s consistent weakness towards our adversaries around the world has encouraged Putin’s latest military aggression and has endangered the territory of Ukraine,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the third-ranking Republican in the House, said in a statement Monday. 

Stefanik, along with nine other House Republicans, introduced legislation Monday aimed at increasing U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, though it also served as an attack on the Biden administration’s strategy. 

One provision of the draft legislation, called the Guaranteeing Ukrainian Autonomy by Reinforcing its Defense Act, aims to override Biden’s sanctions waiver related to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany, a key area of conflict between Republicans and the administration that has tacit backing from congressional Democrats, who also opposed waiving sanctions on the pipeline.

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