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Illustration by Security Management

U.S.-Russia Talks on Ukraine Go Nowhere

Russia and the countries that comprise the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) appear to be at an impasse, and the fate of Ukraine may hang in the balance.

Talks between the United States and Russia on Monday ended with neither side reporting any progress. The Associated Press’s characterization of the dueling press briefings after the meeting is that “low expectations from both Washington and Moscow about the high-stakes session in Geneva appeared to have been met,” and “neither side characterized the meeting as a complete failure, but neither did they offer any prospect of easing the increasingly worrisome standoff.”

The issue is Russia’s demand that NATO not expand eastward and roll back its military deployments in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. The standoff is the build-up of an apparent invasion force on the borders of Ukraine.

A New York Times map amalgamation shows how Russia has built up forces on three sides of Ukraine. The article describes the deployments as involving “troops, tanks, and heavy artillery,” but lacking logistical infrastructure—such as field hospitals—that would likely be needed in a ground invasion scenario. That article was published on 7 January. An article three days later details the deployment of helicopters, another sign that U.S. officials say shows Russia is planning an invasion.

The top Russian official at the Monday talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, said Russia has no such invasion plans. He echoed Russia’s position that the deployments are a reaction to security threats posed by Western plans to deploy offensive weapons in Ukraine.

In a December press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin rhetorically asked, “Should Russia live constantly looking back at what’s going on and what new weapon systems are put there? We need to think about ensuring our security.”

In response to the buildup, U.S. President Joe Biden said there would be punishing sanctions if Russia attacked Ukraine. The sanctions being considered “would be overwhelming, immediate, and inflict significant costs on the Russian economy and their financial system," according to a White House official who spoke with CNN.

As for Russia’s demand that NATO give guarantees and pull back, the U.S. lead delegate in the talks made clear that the demand will not be considered by the United States or its allies.

“We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Instead, Sherman said certain things could be on the table, including talks about reviving a nuclear treaty abandoned by the Trump Administration and each country setting limits to the size and scope of military exercises.

A news analysis piece in The New York Times draws parallels between today’s standoff and the Cold War crises that led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the invasion of then-Czechoslovakia in 1968. The piece boils down the U.S. position as an offer to maintain “the post-Cold War status quo,” and the Russian position as a demand to go back to Cold War, superpower spheres of influence in Europe.

The Washington Post article on the Monday meeting quoted Michael Kofman, a Russian expert at research organization CNA: “Ryabkov’s task was to determine whether political will exists to discuss Russia’s more fundamental demands,” he said. “There is not. What Putin does with that information is anyone’s guess, but the Russian military continues to mass forces.”

The situation on Ukraine's border will be the topic for discussions for the rest of the week. Monday was for bilateral meetings between Russia and the United States. On Wednesday, Russian authorities will meet with NATO representatives in Brussels, and on Thursday they will meet with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—the first meeting that will involve Ukraine directly.