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Difficult route to accord in Geneva talks

U.S. and Russian diplomats met for talks over Russia's troop buildup by Ukraine, the first in a series of discussions that could be vital to Europe's security.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet in Geneva
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet in Geneva (AN/Eric Bridiers)

GENEVA (AN) — Diplomats for the United States and Russia were stalemated after talks on Monday over Russia's troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, the first in a series of high-stakes discussions that could be vital to Europe's future security.

Expectations were kept to a minimum that any breakthrough could be achieved by the delegations led by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during their meeting at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, a short distance from the United Nations' European headquarters in the Palais des Nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's government — seeking to re-establish Russian dominance over former parts of the Soviet Union — has demanded that the United States and NATO sign treaties to prohibit the military alliance from making any further eastward expansion to nations like Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, and to withdraw NATO forces already stationed in Central and Eastern Europe.

Russia has positioned an estimated 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, prompting concerns in the West that a new invasion may be planned. Russia denies having any such plans, but it illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supported a separatist insurgency that seized parts of eastern Ukraine. Some 14,000 people have died in the conflict.

Russia's foreign ministry tweeted that the "negotiations on security guarantees" in Geneva promised to be "long and substantial." Ryabkov held a news conference after the talks at the Russian Mission, directly across the street from the Palais des Nations, where he said there was no progress but he remained optimistic about future discussions.

Discussions were slated to continue during meetings of the NATO-Russia Council at Brussels and of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, or OSCE, at Vienna later this week.

'A sphere of influence'

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg already have rejected most of Russia's initial demands, saying they are a distraction from the real issue.

"They want to draw us into a debate about NATO, rather than focus on the matter at hand, which is their aggression toward Ukraine," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said ahead of the talks. He said the United States will not be "diverted" from its focus on Ukraine because what is happening there "is not only about Ukraine" but has ramifications for the rest of the world.

"It’s part of a broader pattern of destabilizing, dangerous, and often illegal behavior by Moscow as it tries to build a sphere of influence that covers the countries that were once under Soviet dominion, and to stop them from realizing their democratic aspirations as fully sovereign, independent nations," said Blinken.

NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed they "will not compromise on core principles, including the right for every nation to decide its own path, including what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of," Stoltenberg told a news conference.

"We are ready to engage in arms control with Russia, conventional, nuclear. But that has to be reciprocal, and it has to be balanced and verifiable," he said. "And that's a different thing that in a way, imposing one-sided restrictions on NATO's ability, right to defend and protect all allies."