US, Russia hold high-stakes talks over Ukraine war fears


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Geneva (AFP) – The United States and Russia open talks on Sunday in Geneva on rising tensions in Ukraine, with Moscow seeking a new, far-reaching security deal with the West but facing strong pressure to withdraw its troops.

The high-level talks open a week of diplomacy in which Russia will meet with NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the United States trying to assure its European allies that they will not be sidelined.

Since late last year, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border and demanded guarantees that NATO will not expand eastward or set up new bases in the former Soviet Union.

The United States, which will be represented by Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, agreed to the talks even though it has made it clear that many of Moscow’s proposals do not make sense.

Originally scheduled to start on Monday, Sherman is now due to have a working dinner with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Sunday evening, a State Department spokesman said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calling Moscow’s demands “gas lighting”, insisted that talks will not produce any progress as long as Russia has “a gun pointed at Ukraine’s temple” .

“We are ready to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression. But a diplomatic solution is still possible and preferable if Russia chooses it,” Blinken said on Friday.

Russia insists it was cheated after the Cold War and understood NATO would not expand Alexandre NEMENOV AFP / File

Russian President Vladimir Putin met his US counterpart Joe Biden in Geneva in June and agreed to regular “stability” talks between Sherman and Ryabkov, who will once again head the Russian delegation.

“Massive” reprisals

In two phone calls to Putin, Biden warned of serious consequences if Russia invaded Ukraine.

The measures envisaged include sanctions against Putin’s inner circle, the cancellation of the controversial Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany or, in the most drastic scenario, the severing of Russia’s ties to the global banking system.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that Washington would also send more troops to eastern NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic states if Russia invaded.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to lead high-stakes talks on Ukraine in Geneva
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to lead high-stakes talks on Ukraine in Geneva Document Permanent Mission of Russia / AFP / File

The Europeans have shown solidarity, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visiting the front line in Ukraine, though some countries are likely to hesitate to take the most drastic measures.

“Whatever the solution, Europe must be involved,” said the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Russia insists that it was deceived after the Cold War and understood that NATO would not expand.

Instead, the US-led alliance accepted most of the former Warsaw Pact countries and the three Baltic states that were under Soviet rule.

Russia has been putting intense pressure on neighboring Ukraine since 2014 after a revolution toppled a government that sided with the Kremlin against rapprochement with Europe.

Russia has seized the Crimean Peninsula and is supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.

As Russia also steps in to bolster its allies in the face of popular uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, Moscow has insisted it wants concrete progress in talks with Washington.

Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov warned after the call with Biden that the United States would be making a “colossal mistake” if it applied sanctions.

“A gigantic bluff”?

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, in a meeting with the alliance’s foreign ministers on Friday, said there remained real risks of a Russian invasion.

But John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine, described the building of Russian troops as a “gigantic bluff” by Putin to seek a negotiated deal.

“They’re trying to see if the Biden administration or Europe will blink,” said Herbst, now a member of the Atlantic Council think tank.

Ukrainians hold placards in solidarity with protestors in Kazakhstan outside the country's embassy in Kiev
Ukrainians hold placards in solidarity with protestors in Kazakhstan outside the country’s embassy in Kiev Sergei SUPINSKY AFP

“As long as the Biden administration remains at least as strong as it is now,” he said, “that’s probably enough to stop Putin from hitting hard in Ukraine, but I’m not ruling out something something smaller “.

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the Geneva talks were more about preventing the Ukraine crisis from escalating than reaching a major deal.

“I think it’s about pulling the pendulum, if we can, towards more dense interaction and more effective diplomacy and communication – not a permanent and eternal resolution of all problems.”

While also downplaying the possibility of a full-scale invasion, Rojansky said the risks of Russian build-up were real.

“There is the Chekhov principle – you put a loaded gun on stage in act one and it has to be fired by act three.”


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