Stark disagreements signal dead-end ahead

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GENEVA – A day of diplomacy between the US and Russia prevented a new invasion or an imminent military strike against Ukraine – at least for this week and maybe even for months.

But in duel press conferences at the end of about Eight hours of conversation in Geneva On Monday, senior negotiators, Russian Deputy Secretary of State Sergei Ryabkov and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, set out irreconcilable differences on key security issues that cast an ominous specter of future conflict over Europe.

In perhaps the greatest divide, Ryabkov again called for tough guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia would “never” join NATO, and Sherman flatly rejected the idea, calling it one of several “non-starters for the United States.”

The divisions created a strange situation in which both sides seemed to admit that the talks were ultimately doomed, at least on some key issues, and yet openly advocate continued, indefinite engagement without either side setting deadlines.

Sherman tried to set a long timeline for the discussions, noting that some of Russia’s demands might include new arms control treaties that would take months, if not longer, to negotiate. For his part, Ryabkov said there had to be faster results.

“We don’t talk for months or weeks, we need quick answers,” he said. “We have to get things going.” But even on his key demand on Ukraine’s prospects for NATO membership, Ryabkov tacitly acknowledged a potentially long calendar, saying Moscow hopes for a statement at the NATO leaders’ summit scheduled for late June in Madrid is.

Perhaps the most immediate relief to Kiev and its western supporters was that Ryabkov got the idea of ​​Moscow intending to launch a new invasion of Ukraine, where in 2014 it forcibly captured and annexed Crimea and armed and financed a separatist war in the eastern region, flatly rejected the Donbass, which killed more than 14,000 people.

“Essentially, it means that Russia wants to trade its – not quoted – threat against Ukraine for more flexibility on the part of the US and the West,” said Ryabkov. “That is not the case because we have no intention of invading Ukraine. And so there is nothing to act. “

Ryabkov got to the point in different ways and in different languages. “There is no intention of attacking Ukraine from Russia,” he once said. “None.” Elsewhere he said: “There is not a single reason to fear an escalation scenario.”

But he also said Russia has no intention of withdrawing the 100,000 or more troops, tanks and other heavy weapons it has amassed on the Ukrainian border, and reiterated – and without basis – President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the Ukraine and the Western powers, including the US, may be planning some kind of “provocation”.

Russia has insisted that troop mobilization be part of military exercises. “All exercises to prepare the troops and armed forces are carried out in our country within our borders,” he said.

“Skill relocation training and activities will continue in Russia because it is imperative to maintain the necessary operational readiness of our armed forces in the situation where the security environment for Russia has deteriorated dramatically recently.” said Ryabkov.

Moscow’s ongoing allegations of possible provocations – for example, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently claimed without evidence that US mercenaries had delivered chemical weapons to eastern Ukraine – leaves the possibility open that Putin could order a military attack at any time.

Putin’s complaints

Some European officials and diplomats have speculated that Putin never intended to invade Ukraine, which could entail enormous costs in terms of casualties, which could be tens of thousands, and economically as a result of the criminal sanctions the West warned against Impose response to an attack.

Rather, they say Putin capitalized on extremely favorable circumstances – US President Joe Biden’s desire to focus his foreign policy on China, a new and as yet inexperienced ruling coalition in Germany, Britain that is being consumed by persistent Brexit problems, and Western governments are still largely distracted by the COVID pandemic and its associated economic consequences.

With all of that as a cover, Putin has used the threat of an invasion to reconsider decades-old complaints about NATO’s eastward expansion and to express genuine anger at the situation in Ukraine, which, despite the ongoing war in Donbas, continues to make steady progress towards integration with the EU and no trace of a return to Russia.

The raw anger the Kremlin still feels at the presence of NATO at its borders – Putin insists the West broke a promise by allowing former Eastern Bloc countries like Poland to join the alliance – was expressed in Ryabkov’s remarks in Geneva clearly on Monday.

“We underline that it is absolutely imperative for us to ensure that Ukraine never and never becomes a member of NATO,” he said. “That is why we would advocate a formal replacement – possibly at the upcoming Madrid NATO summit – of the 2008 Bucharest formula, which says that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, with the exact wording I have just mentioned: Ukraine and Georgia will never become a member of “NATO.”

He continued: “We are fed up with loose talk, half-promises, misinterpretations of what has happened in various forms of negotiation behind closed doors. We don’t trust the other side … We need armored, watertight, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees – no assurances, no guarantees – guarantees, in all words – should, must – everything that should be put into this … Never, never become a member of NATO. It’s about the national security of Russia. “

Just as clearly, Sherman refused the request. She said the US is ready to negotiate with Russia on missile missions and nuclear arms control, as well as discussing limits on the scope and scope of military exercises, provided these steps are reciprocal.

But she said, “We were determined, however, to roll back security proposals that the United States simply did not raise. We will not allow anyone to slam NATO’s open door policy, which has always been at the heart of the NATO alliance. We will not forego bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States. And we will not make any decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, about NATO without NATO. As we tell our allies and partners, nothing about you without you. “

Washington’s insistence not to negotiate on behalf of NATO allies or Ukraine is partly due to pressure from European capitals as well as the EU, which insist on a stronger role and are no longer willing to trust the US to manage their security matters.

But it has also proven to be a useful negotiating position, allowing the US to bring some of Russia’s demands to the table in larger meetings where it is likely to encounter a chorus of disagreement. Moscow has long sought to restore its Cold War superpower status and prefers to speak directly to Washington. And Putin generally assumes that the US can dictate policy to NATO allies.

Ryabkov also made other complaints at his press conferences, including allegations that the US abandoned the medium-range nuclear missile treaty, which the US believes has failed due to Russia’s repeated violations of its terms.

The Russian negotiator continued to suspect the possibility of armed conflict and reiterated the potential need to defend Russia against attacks by Ukraine or the West – a claim Sherman firmly denied.

“Were concerned … [about] possible provocations on the part of Ukraine, deliberate provocations alone or jointly, in cooperation with like-minded countries in the West, such as the US, as well as others, including the UK, which can create a situation where the likelihood of some clashes increases, “said Ryabkov. “We have to avoid this and diplomacy should have the upper hand. That was the whole purpose of our exercise last night and today in Geneva. “

Sherman said Russia needs to decide whether it really wants a diplomatic solution, but she called on the Kremlin over its previous attacks on Ukraine.

“A country cannot forcibly alter another’s borders, dictate the terms of another country’s foreign policy, or prohibit another country from choosing its own alliances,” she said. “These are fundamental principles of the international system, and are principles that Russia has previously agreed to – many times over the years.”

Sherman said the US wanted to see a troop withdrawal as a step towards future agreements.

“We knew, and we realized today, that the United States would welcome real progress through diplomacy,” she said, adding, “If Russia stays at the table and takes concrete steps to de-escalate tensions, we believe that we can “make progress. But if Russia leaves the diplomatic path, it may be very obvious that it was never serious about pursuing diplomacy. “

Jacopo Barigazzi and Cristina Gonzalez contributed the reporting.

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