No immediate major breakthrough in sight as officials start tense meeting

GENEVA-After days of pessimistic statements on both sides, the United States and Russia began tough negotiations over Ukraine in Geneva on Monday.

The talks between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman began at the US diplomatic mission in the Swiss city with US-Russia relations at their most tense since the Cold War ended three decades ago.

The pair made only brief eye contact when they posed for photographs beforehand.

“The talks promise to be long and substantial,” the Russian diplomatic mission in Geneva said on social media, with a picture of the two lead negotiators standing in front of their national flags.

Sherman said “the US will listen to Russia’s concerns and share our own” in an earlier tweet from Geneva, adding that no discussions on European security would be held without the presence of other allies. Discussions will move to meetings in Brussels and Vienna later this week.

The two diplomats had already met informally in the Swiss city on Sunday evening, with Ryabkov afterward telling the Interfax news agency the conversation was “businesslike” and “difficult”.

The West is concerned by Russian troop movements on its border with Ukraine, noting Russia now has more troops along the border than any time since 2014.

Russia denies any plans to attack Ukraine and said it is responding to the aggressive behavior from the NATO military alliance and Ukraine, which has tilted toward the West and aspires to join NATO.

Last month, Russia presented sweeping demands including a ban on further NATO expansion and an end to the alliance’s activity in Central and Eastern European countries that joined it after 1997.

The US and NATO say large parts of the Russian proposals are nonstarters.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Monday quoted Ryabkov as saying that he feared Washington was not taking seriously Moscow’s demand of an end to NATO’s eastward expansion.

Ryabkov said Russia would not accept US attempts to limit the agenda to discussion of military exercises and missile deployments-the topics outlined by US President Joe Biden’s administration as areas it is willing to broach.

“We need legal guarantees of the non-expansion of NATO and the elimination of everything that the alliance has created since 1997,” Ryabkov said.

Firm lines

Both sides have set firm lines, with Washington warning that Moscow would face severe diplomatic and economic consequences from “an invasion of Ukraine”, and Russia demanding wide-ranging new security arrangements with the West.

Russia had tried to show flexibility for the past 30 years and it was time for the other side to be flexible, he said. “If they are unable to do this, they will face a worsening situation in their own security.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also played down expectations for the high-stakes talks.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any breakthroughs in the coming week,” Blinken said in a CNN interview on Sunday.

The two countries are also at odds over Russia’s deployment of troops in Kazakhstan after well-planned attacks there last week, its support for Belarus in a migrant crisis on the European Union’s border, and what Washington sees as Russia’s use of its gas supplies to Europe to gain political leverage over its neighbors.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who will meet the Russian team on Wednesday in Brussels, said Russia and the West could find a pathway to avoid conflict.

“What we are hoping for is that we can agree on a way forward, that we can agree on a series of meetings, that we can agree on a process,” he said.

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 will meet in Vienna on Thursday with the issue of Ukraine expected to dominate.