A top Russian official said he had a “difficult” conversation with his US counterpart on Sunday as preliminary talks on Ukraine got under way amid fears of a Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbor.
“The conversation was difficult, it couldn’t have been easy,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during a working dinner in Geneva.
Ryabkov described his talks with Sherman, which lasted a little over two hours, as “business-like.” A full day of talks was to follow Monday.
“I think that tomorrow we won’t waste any time,” Ryabkov said, adding that he “never loses optimism.”
The United States and Russia had set firm lines ahead of the high-stakes security talks on Ukraine, with Washington warning of the risk of confrontation and Moscow ruling out concessions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Russia to steer away from aggression and choose the diplomatic path as the Kremlin, facing strong pressure to pull back troops from the Ukrainian border, demands wide-ranging new security arrangements with the West.
For her part, during her initial talks with Ryabkov Sherman “stressed the United States’ commitment to the international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances,” the State Department said in a statement.
Ahead of the talks, Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that Moscow was “disappointed” with signals coming from Washington and from Brussels, where NATO and the European Union are based.
The talks with the United States kick off a week of diplomacy during which Russian officials will meet representatives of NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as Washington tries to assure European allies they will not be sidelined.
“There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences,” Blinken told US news channel CNN on Sunday.
“The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We are about to test the proposition about which path President (Vladimir) Putin is prepared to take.”
‘Gun to Ukraine’s head’
Since late last year, Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops at the Ukrainian border and demanded guarantees that NATO will not expand further eastward.
The Kremlin is insisting NATO must never grant membership to ex-Soviet Ukraine, which is pushing to join.
The United States says many of Moscow’s proposals are non-starters.
Blinken warned that any positive outcome from the talks would rely in part on Russia’s willingness to stand down from its aggressive posture, which he likened to “an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head”.
“If we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation,” US President Joe Biden’s top diplomat said.
Russia could otherwise face severe economic and financial consequences, “as well as NATO almost certainly having to reinforce its position near Russia as well as continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine”, he told ABC television on Sunday.
Putin met Biden in Geneva in June and agreed on regular “stability” talks between Sherman and Ryabkov. Previous rounds were held in the Swiss city in July and September.
In two phone calls to Putin, Biden has warned of severe consequences if Russia invades Ukraine.
Measures under consideration include sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, cancelling Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany or, in the most drastic scenario, severing Russia’s links to the world’s banking system.
Russia insists it was deceived after the Cold War and understood that NATO would not expand eastward.
Instead, the US-led alliance welcomed most of the former Warsaw Pact countries and the three Baltic nations that were under Soviet rule.
On Sunday in an interview for Russian news agency TASS in Geneva, Ryabkov accused NATO of trying for decades to “push back” Russia.
“So NATO should pack up and return to the borders of 1997,” Ryabkov said.
Russia has put intense pressure on Ukraine since 2014 after a revolution overthrew a government that had sided with the Kremlin against moving closer to Europe.
Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and backs an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.
“It is very likely that we will encounter the reticence of our US and NATO colleagues to really perceive what we need,” Ryabkov said Sunday.
In spite “of the threats that are constantly formulated against us… we will make no concession,” he said, adding it would “amount to acting against the interests of our security”.
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