- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2022

A nearly six-hour “businesslike” conversation between American and Russian diplomats in Geneva on Monday outwardly did little to resolve the dangerous military standoff along the Russia-Ukraine border and rising tensions across Eastern Europe, with top officials from both nations publicly downplaying the talks and insisting that the other side had to make the first move.

The lack of tangible progress should come as no surprise. A day earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News that he saw little hope for an immediate breakthrough to resolve the crisis.

With 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding major security concessions from the U.S. and NATO to avoid a war.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman said after her meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov that the talks Monday did not even rise to the level of formal negotiation.

“Today was a discussion, a better understanding of each other and each other’s priorities and concerns. It was not what you would call a negotiation. We’re not to a point where we’re ready to set down text and begin to go back and forth,” she told reporters on a conference call. “We are trying to have very serious, businesslike, candid, clear-eyed, straightforward conversations with each other to best understand each other’s concerns and priorities.”

As a first step to de-escalate the crisis, Russia must pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border, Ms. Sherman said. The longer those troops are in place, the greater the chance for war to break out.

The show of force has proved profitable for Mr. Putin. In recent months, he has forced the U.S. and its allies into a broad discussion of security arrangements in Europe while demonstrating the Kremlin’s considerable ability to cause mischief in the region. Moscow says the root causes of the crisis are NATO‘s expansion to Russia‘s borders and the escalating military support of Kyiv.

The powder keg in Eastern Europe presents a critical foreign policy test for President Biden. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he vowed to get tough on the Kremlin and to hold Mr. Putin accountable for Russia‘s aggression against its neighbors, its role in cyberattacks on the U.S. government and private companies, and its disinformation campaigns around the world and other malign behavior.

Mr. Biden was vice president when Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. But the threat of a full-scale Russian ground invasion of Ukraine rises to an entirely new level for Mr. Biden and U.S. allies across Europe. The president has responded with harsh rhetoric and a call for direct diplomacy, including two one-on-one conversations with Mr. Putin in the past several weeks.

A series of meetings in Geneva is the next step in that process. NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will meet with Russian officials later this week.

Ms. Sherman said the U.S. did not address “line by line” Russia‘s proposal to end the border standoff. That proposal, offered last month, includes demands that the U.S. limit its troop presence and weapons deployments in Eastern Europe and that Georgia and Ukraine never be allowed to formally join NATO.

The U.S. has flatly rejected those demands. The White House also vehemently denied reports over the weekend that it was considering scaling back troop deployments in Eastern Europe.

Administration officials did say that Washington is willing to negotiate on missile placements and the size and scope of military exercises in Eastern Europe. It does not appear that such details were discussed Monday, nor were any serious proposals to that effect put on the table.

Meanwhile, Russia held firm on its demands. At a news conference after meeting with Ms. Sherman, Mr. Ryabkov, one of the Kremlin’s most experienced diplomatic hands, said Russia will not budge on its insistence that Ukraine and Georgia — former Soviet republics — can never be allowed to join NATO.

“The situation now is so dangerous and so, I would say, precarious that we cannot afford any further delays in resolution of this very fundamental question. As President Putin said on many occasions, ‘We cannot backpedal. We cannot go backwards. There is no further space for us to do so,’” he said.

Foreign policy analysts have said the U.S. should use the meetings this week to press Russia on other issues, including a new intermediate-range nuclear weapons treaty or commitments from Moscow to stop backing pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian troops in the country’s disputed Donbas region.

Mr. Ryabkov suggested that the Kremlin isn’t willing to discuss any of those issues unless it gets ironclad assurances that NATO won’t expand eastward.

“Without advances on those key issues that are absolutely essential for us, it would be problematic to work on other aspects,” he said.

He dismissed Western warnings that Russian military action against Ukraine could be imminent.

All Russian troop and weaponry movements have been in Russian territory, he said, and “there is no basis to worry about an escalation in connection to this.”

Cloudy path forward

Russia has shown little appetite for pulling troops back from the border without significant concessions from the West. Asked directly whether Russia indicated any willingness to de-escalate the military standoff, Ms. Sherman said it’s not clear.

“I don’t think we know the answer to that,” she told reporters. “We made it very clear that it’s very hard to have constructive, productive and successful diplomacy without de-escalation because the escalation obviously increases tensions and doesn’t create the best environment for real negotiations, which we didn’t get to today, but is what one would have to get to ultimately here.

“We’ll see how serious they are,” she said.

Mr. Biden and his diplomats are facing pressure on another front as Russia hawks in Congress press him to take a firmer line against Mr. Putin.

Politico reported Monday that a group of House Republicans is preparing to introduce a bill to require much more open and substantial U.S. support for Ukraine in its battle of wills with its vastly larger neighbor.

Among other things, the measure would force Mr. Biden to reimpose punishing sanctions on the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to get Russian natural gas to Western markets while bypassing Ukraine, and mandate some $200 million in aid to bolster Ukraine‘s navy and air defenses.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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