US-Russia talks end with no signals on Putin’s next move

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pose for pictures as they attend security talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine, at the U.S. permanent Mission, in Geneva, on Jan. 10, 2022. (Denis Balibouse/Pool/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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John Follain, Nick Wadhams and Lyubov Pronina Bloomberg News (TNS)

The U.S. said Russia must decide if it’s interested in resolving a standoff over Ukraine or is seeking a pretext to invade, as a second round of talks over the crisis concluded without a clear path forward.

“There was no commitment to deescalate,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters after a NATO meeting with Russia on Wednesday, using sharper language than she did after direct talks with Russia two days earlier. “Russia’s actions have caused this crisis and it is on Russia to deescalate tensions and give diplomacy the chance to succeed.”

The two sides made little apparent progress in either Wednesday’s meeting, which went on an hour longer than expected, or the one Monday in Geneva between Washington and Moscow. But the sessions ended with suggestions that further talks were possible, as Western diplomats continue trying to discern Russian President Vladimir Putin’s real intentions toward Ukraine.

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Russia rejected blame for causing the crisis — or responsibility to resolve it — with its chief negotiator at the talks with NATO saying Moscow is a “guarantor of peace” in the region.

Underscoring the divide between the sides, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told reporters the talks uncovered “a big number of differences on fundamental issues.” He said Russia offered no compromise on its security demands but is willing to engage in arms control talks on offensive weapons.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Kremlin expects a “constructive dialogue” with the U.S. and its allies in order to agree on security guarantees demanded by Moscow “as quickly as possible.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO is willing to meet again but that Russia wasn’t ready to commit to a schedule. Grushko said no decision has been made yet, as Russia awaits expected written proposals from the alliance.

“There is progress that can be made and everyone, Russia most of all, will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext and they may not even know yet,” Sherman said.

There was no sign of progress on one of Moscow’s main demands, that the alliance stop accepting new members. Stoltenberg reiterated that only NATO and applicant countries can decide on membership, saying Russia “does not have a veto” on whether Ukraine can join.

“I did not hear substantively new things because we had nearly eight hours of conversation, plus a dinner in Geneva,” Sherman said.

The main topic at Wednesday’s meeting at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels was the more than 100,000 troops that Russia has massed on Ukraine’s border, prompting fears it is preparing an invasion.

The Monday session in Geneva didn’t give the U.S. and its allies much insight into the fundamental question of what Putin will do next, according to people close to the negotiations.

Little leeway

As Moscow had telegraphed going into this week, the Russian diplomats appeared to have little room to go beyond the sweeping demands that the Kremlin had laid out at the end of last year, even though they were rejected almost immediately by the West.

At the same time, Moscow is continuing its troop buildup near the border with Ukraine, defying NATO calls for de-escalation. Western officials are increasingly worried that the Kremlin could leave forces there for a long period, keeping pressure on even without an invasion. In addition, Russia could step up efforts to destabilize Ukraine with cyberattacks or other means.

For its part, Moscow has sent mixed messages about this week’s talks, signaling satisfaction that the U.S. is finally taking its concerns seriously but warning that more progress is needed, and quickly. But Russia has been vague about what it might do if the diplomacy fails, hinting at possible new weapons deployments that could threaten the West.

Russian officials have touted as a triumph what they say is the agreement by the U.S. and its allies to finally discuss the Kremlin’s security concerns seriously after years of brushing them off. The Kremlin, which has denied any plans to invade Ukraine, said the decision on whether to continue diplomacy will be based largely on the outcome of Wednesday’s discussions.

War ‘unthinkable’

War between NATO and Russia is “unthinkable” because it would lead to a wider global conflict, Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins warned in an interview with TV3. “Russia is not afraid of NATO forces, Russia is afraid of Ukraine’s democracy,” Karins told the broadcaster on Wednesday.

Meetings of the NATO-Russia Council had been frozen since an encounter in 2019, amid tensions over issues including the Russian annexation of Crimea, a Moscow-backed military conflict in the east of Ukraine and a clash over alleged spying.

The NATO talks will be followed by discussions in Vienna under the framework of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday.

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