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GENEVA – A day of diplomacy between the United States and Russia has warned of yet another invasion or impending military strike against Ukraine – at least for this week and possibly even for months.
But at a press conference at the end of around eight hours of talks in Geneva on Monday, key negotiators Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman explained irreconcilable differences on key security issues that have left the specter of future conflict looming over Europe.
In perhaps the most striking division, Ryabkov again demanded firm guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia would “never” join NATO, and Sherman categorically rejected the idea, calling it “not in favor. United States “.
The divisions created a strange situation in which both sides seemed to recognize that the talks were ultimately doomed, at least on some key points, and yet expressed their openness to continued and unlimited engagement, neither side. setting deadlines.
Sherman sought to create a long timetable for the talks, noting that some of Russia’s demands would potentially involve new arms control treaties that would take months or more to negotiate. Ryabkov, for his part, said faster results are needed.
“We are not talking about months or weeks, we need a quick response,” he said. “We have to get things done. But even on his main request regarding Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects, Ryabkov tacitly acknowledged a potentially long timeline, saying Moscow hoped for a statement at the NATO leaders’ summit scheduled for late June in Madrid.
Perhaps of the most immediate relief for Kiev and its Western supporters, Ryabkov categorically rejected the idea that Moscow intended to launch a new invasion of Ukraine, where it seized and annexed Crimea by force in 2014 and armed and funded a separatist war in the eastern region. of Donbass which killed more than 14,000 people.
“Basically, it is said that Russia wants to trade its threat, in quotes, against Ukraine for more flexibility from the United States and the West,” Ryabkov said. “This is not the case because we have no intention of invading Ukraine. And so, there is nothing to trade with.
Ryabkov returned to the point in various ways, using different language. “There is no intention to attack Ukraine from Russia,” he said at one point. “Nothing.” At another point, he said, “There is no single reason to fear some sort of escalation scenario. “
But he also said that Russia has no intention of withdrawing the 100,000 or more troops, tanks and other heavy weapons it has amassed at the Ukrainian border, claiming once again – and without merit – the claim by President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine and the Western powers, including the United States, can plan some sort of “provocation.”
Russia has insisted that the mobilization of troops is part of the military exercises. “All the exercises to prepare the troops and the forces, it is carried out inside our country within our borders”, he declared.
“The training and activities regarding the move of capabilities will continue in Russia, as this is absolutely necessary to maintain the necessary level of operational readiness of our armed forces in the situation where the security environment for Russia has drastically worsened in recent times. “Ryabkov said.
Moscow’s continued claim of potential provocations – Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, for example, recently alleged without evidence that American mercenaries delivered chemical weapons to eastern Ukraine – leaves open the possibility that Putin can order a military strike at any time.
Some European officials and diplomats have speculated that Putin never intended to invade Ukraine, which would entail huge costs in terms of losses that could run into the tens of thousands, and economically, due to punitive sanctions that the West warned it would. impose in response to an attack.
On the contrary, they say Putin took advantage of an extremely favorable set of circumstances – the desire of US President Joe Biden to focus his foreign policy on China, a new government coalition still inexperienced in Germany, the UK absorbed by the lingering Brexit problems and Western governments still largely distracted by the COVID pandemic and its attendant economic fallout.
With all of this as cover, Putin used the threat of an invasion to revisit decades-old grievances about NATO’s eastward expansion, as well as to express genuine fury at the situation in Ukraine, which, despite the ongoing war in Donbass, continued to progress steadily. in its integration with the EU and shows no sign of returning to Russia.
The raw anger the Kremlin still feels over NATO’s presence at its borders – Putin insists the West has broken a promise by allowing former Eastern bloc countries like Poland to join the ‘alliance – was evident in Ryabkov’s remarks in Geneva on Monday.
“We stress that for us it is absolutely obligatory to ensure that Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of NATO,” he said. “We would therefore be in favor of a formal replacement – possibly at the next NATO summit in Madrid – of the Bucharest formula of 2008 which says that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, with exactly the wording that I I have mentioned now: Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO.
He continued, “We are fed up with vague words, half-promises, misinterpretations of what happened in different forms of closed-door negotiations. We don’t trust the other side… We need bulletproof, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees – no insurances, no guarantees – guarantees, with all the words – must , must – everything that should be put in this…. Never, ever become a member of NATO. It is a matter of Russian national security.
Sherman was equally adamant in rejecting the request. She said the United States was ready to negotiate with Russia on missile deployments and nuclear weapons control, as well as discuss limiting the scope and scale of military exercises, provided that these measures are reciprocal.
But she said: “We have, however, been firm in pushing back on security proposals that are just not starters for the United States. We will not allow anyone to slam the closure of NATO’s open door policy, which has always been at the heart of the NATO alliance. We will not give up bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States. And we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, Europe without Europe, NATO without NATO. As we tell our allies and partners, nothing about you, without you.
Washington’s insistence on negotiating neither on behalf of NATO allies nor on behalf of Ukraine is partly due to pressure from European capitals, as well as the EU, who insist on asserting a greater role and are no longer willing to trust the United States to run their security affairs.
But it has also proven to be a useful negotiating posture, allowing the United States to put some of Russia’s demands on the table in larger meetings where they are likely to encounter a chorus of disagreements. . Moscow has long sought to reestablish its Cold War superpower status and much prefers to be in direct conversation with Washington. And Putin generally operates on the belief that the United States can dictate policy to NATO allies.
Ryabkov, during his press conferences, also voiced other complaints, including accusations that the United States has abandoned the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States says has collapsed. due to repeated violations of its terms by Russia.
The Russian negotiator continued to raise the possibility of armed conflict, reiterating the potential need for Russia to defend itself against attacks from the Ukraine or the West – a claim Sherman flatly rejected.
” We are worried… [about] possible provocations on the part of Ukraine, deliberate provocations alone or in concert, in cooperation with like-minded Western countries, such as the United States, like others, including the United Kingdom, which can create a situation where the likelihood of some clashes will increase, “Ryabkov said.” We must avoid this and diplomacy should prevail. That was the whole point of our exercise last night and today in Geneva.
Sherman said Russia must decide if it really wants a diplomatic solution, but called on the Kremlin for its earlier attacks on Ukraine.
“One country cannot change another country’s borders by force, or dictate the terms of another country’s foreign policy, or prohibit another country from choosing its own alliances,” she said. . “These are basic principles of the international system, and they are principles that Russia has already accepted – many times over the years.”
Sherman said the United States wanted to see a withdrawal of forces as a step towards future deals.
“We have been clear, and we have been clear today, that the United States would welcome real progress through diplomacy,” she said, adding: “If Russia stays at the table and takes steps concrete measures to defuse tensions, we believe that we can achieve progress. But if Russia moves away from the diplomatic track, it may well never have been serious about pursuing diplomacy. “
Jacopo Barigazzi and Cristina Gonzalez contributed reporting.