Top US and Russian officials held crucial talks Monday with tensions soaring over Ukraine and security demands from Moscow, but there was little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough.
The high-stakes negotiations come amid fears of a Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour Ukraine, and with Moscow demanding wide-ranging concessions from Washington and its NATO allies.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov opened their meeting at the US mission in Geneva at 8:55 am (0755 GMT).
The two diplomats had already met informally in the Swiss city on Sunday evening, with Ryabkov afterwards telling Russian news agencies the first meeting had been “difficult”.
Pointing to a 2008 promise by NATO to consider membership for Ukraine and others, Ryabkov said: “Are they ready to give legal guarantees that this country, as well as other countries… will not join NATO?”
Sherman said on Twitter that the talks were underway but there would be little progress without others at the table.
Sherman in the talks on Sunday had stressed “the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances,” the State Department said.
In the muddy trenches on the frontline in Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces have been battling pro-Russian fighters since 2014, there was little hope for diplomacy.
“Guarantees of not joining NATO will never stop” Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mykhailo said, adding: “He wants to return the Soviet Union in version 2.0.”
After Monday’s talks, a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will take place in Brussels on Wednesday, then the permanent council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will meet in Vienna on Thursday with the issue of Ukraine expected to dominate.
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”.
But Western officials have warned Moscow would face significant economic and financial consequences if it invades, and could see NATO boost its presence and capacities near Russia’s borders.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that the alliance would be warning Russia of the “severe costs” of an invasion.
“We are aiming for an agreement on a way forward, a process, a series of meetings,” Stoltenberg said before talks with Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in Brussels.
Moscow insists it was deceived after the Cold War and understood that NATO would not expand eastward.
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.
“The Cold War is over, and so are spheres of influence,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted ahead of Monday’s talks.