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US and Russia hold tense talks on Ukraine crisis

January 10, 2022

The deputy US secretary of state said Washington pushed back on Moscow's security proposals. Her Russian counterpart said there was no basis for Western powers to fear an "escalation" with Ukraine.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (R) stand near US and Russian flags during talks on Ukraine in Geneva, Switzerland
The eight-hour talks between US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (R) contained 'no surprises'Image: Denis Balibouse/KEYSTONE/REUTERS/dpa/picture alliance

Top diplomats from the US and Russia held talks on Monday in Geneva, seeking to quell heightened tensions over Moscow's troop buildup near its border with Ukraine.

The meeting between US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, concluded in the Swiss city after eight hours of discussions.

Russian representatives are this week also set to meet delegations from NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

What did the US and Russia say?

Speaking to reporters after the talks concluded, Russia's deputy foreign minister said that the talks with the US were "difficult" and "professional." But he said the US positions came as "no surprise."

"Certain threats or warnings were put forward [...] We explained to our colleagues that we have no plans to 'attack' Ukraine," Ryabkov said.

"There is no basis for fearing any escalated scenario in this regard," the Russian diplomat added.

Sherman described the talks as "frank and forthright" — but added that Washington pushed back against Moscow's security proposals.

The US diplomat said it wasn't clear from Monday's talks whether Moscow would commit to deescalation.

"I don't think we know the answer to that. We made it very clear that it's very hard to have constructive, productive and successful diplomacy without deescalation," Sherman told reporters.

She added that the US delegation rejected Russia's demands for guarantees from NATO that it would stop its eastward expansion.

Where does each side stand? 

The West is concerned that Russia's massing of troops and military hardware near the border with Ukraine could lead to an invasion. Moscow has denied that is the intention.

The Kremlin is seeking assurances that NATO will no longer expand eastward and that Ukraine will never be given membership to the military alliance.

Washington has made clear that many of those demands are non-starters. On Sunday, Russia dampened optimism about a possible resolution.

What did the talks reveal?

DW's Brussels bureau chief, Alexandra von Nahmen, said that the statements from the two diplomats showed that an agreement between Moscow and Washington is a long way off.

The talks ended "with no breakthrough" on the major issues at hand, but that wasn't expected since the meeting's goal was to hear the concerns from each side.

"At the moment, it's totally unclear how a deal could be possible," von Nahmen said, speaking from Geneva.

Speaking with DW, US information and cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch saw the slow pace of talks in a positive light.

"I think it's a very positive development because it could mean that we can go into potentially prolonged discussion on broader European security issues, addressing Russia's concerns, addressing the concerns of European countries — that could take years … In the meantime, of course, we would avoid war, so that I view as the best outcome that we could get out of the situation is to simply delay buy time for diplomacy to work," said Alperovitch.

Looking ahead to the rest of the week, Russia will take part in several key meetings on the Ukraine crisis in Europe, but the risk of escalation is still high.

According to statements from the US delegation, "they still don't know if the Russians are willing to enter those meetings in good faith," or whether they are just looking for a chance to declare negotiations a failure.

That would help them "create a pretext for another incursion into Ukraine," von Nahmen said.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland
Talks between the US and Russia took place in Geneva, Switzerland against the backdrop of tensions over UkraineImage: Denis Balibouse/KEYSTONE/REUTERS/picture alliance

How has NATO responded?

At the same time as the talks in Geneva, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held talks with Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, Olga Stefanishyna.

In a joint press conference on Monday, Stoltenberg warned Russia that "any further aggression against Ukraine would come at a high political and economic price."

Stoltenberg said Ukraine was a "valued and longstanding partner to NATO."

On Wednesday a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will be held in Brussels.

The secretary general said Russia's willingness to attend was a positive development.

"I welcome that Russia has agreed to our offer to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council later this week. This is a positive signal."

Stoltenberg said there would be focus on European security issues while it would listen to what Russia had to say.

"We will listen to Russia's concerns, but any meaningful dialogue must also address our concerns about Russia's actions."

The lead-up to talks

US President Joe Biden held two phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin in previous weeks.

Biden warned his Russian counterpart of serious consequences, should Moscow invade Ukraine again, after annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. A possible response could include further sanctions, canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or even cutting Russia off from the global banking network.

rs, kb/wmr (AP, AFP)

Biden, Putin discuss Ukraine tensions