US and Russian diplomats have emerged from a day of negotiations in Geneva over the fate of Ukraine, describing the talks as “useful” and “very professional” – but also stressing they had not made progress towards resolving fundamental disagreements.
The two sides largely spent the eight hours of talks presenting their points of view on the situation in Ukraine, currently hemmed in by some 100,000 Russian troops, and on European security in general, and deferred further debate on them to a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday between Russia and all Nato members.
“We had useful discussions and exchanges today that will help inform our way forward,” Wendy Sherman, the deputy US secretary of state and leader of the delegation in Geneva, told reporters after the day of talks.
Her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, said: “The conversation was difficult, long, very professional, deep, concrete, without attempts to embellish or smooth over sharp corners.
“We have been left with the impression that the American side approached the Russian proposals very seriously, studied them in depth,” Ryabkov said.
Sherman also remarked on the Russians’ readiness to negotiate, saying they discussed “things that are not Russian priorities”.
She said that the issues of reciprocal limits on military exercises and missile deployments were discussed, but the US ruled out as a matter of principle, the idea of a guarantee that Ukraine would never join Nato, restating that it was the country’s sovereign right to decide.
“We were firm in pushing back on security proposals that are simply non-starters for the United States,” Sherman said. “We will not allow anyone to slam close Nato’s open door policy.”
While conceding that the talks were “not hopeless” Ryabkov confirmed Russia had made no progress in achieving its key goals, which the Kremlin laid out in December in two proposed treaties with the US and Nato, which included a pledge by the US that Nato would no longer accept new members such as Ukraine or Georgia.
In his remarks on Monday, Ryabkov said that a pledge from Nato not to expand further, to limit the deployment of weapons in countries bordering Russia, and to roll back military activity in new Nato countries were “requirements we cannot step back from”.
Ryabkov said the two sides had continued to clash over what the agenda of future talks should be. While the US has sought to focus on technical arms control issues, Ryabkov described those as a secondary concern compared with the far thornier demand to limit Nato’s presence in central and eastern Europe.
He also noted that elements of Russia’s demands, such as an effective veto on future Nato enlargement, appear to be non-starters for the US and its allies. Analysts have said that the aggressive demands made by Russia mean that the negotiations are headed for a dead-end.
“Regrettably, there are also other aspects of the same sort where we disagree: something that is absolutely necessary to us is categorically unacceptable to the Americans,” Ryabkov told the press.
He warned that Russia did not want negotiations to take months or years and insisted that Moscow would also stick to its demands for Nato to roll back its troops and infrastructure in eastern Europe to pre-1997 levels. The US presence on the alliance’s eastern flank was significantly reinforced after the Russian annexation of Crimea and covert military intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“There needs to be a breakthrough, there needs to be a real step toward Russia – a step made by Nato,” Ryabkov said. “If this doesn’t happen … we very much don’t want to have a situation where Nato countries led by the US make that kind of mistake and once again act to undermine their own security and the security of the whole European continent.”
He said both sides were looking to the upcoming Nato-Russia Council on Wednesday as a testing ground for whether Russia can come to a new arrangement with the security alliance.
Ryabkov repeated Russian assurances that Moscow was not planning to attack Ukraine. All Russian troop movements were taking place inside the country’s borders, he said, and “there is no basis to worry about an escalation in connection to this”.
On being informed of his remarks, Sherman responded: “They can prove that, in fact, they have no intention [to invade] by de-escalating and returning troops to barracks.”
Over the weekend, open source investigators had identified new signs that Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine was probably continuing.
Videos posted on social networks such as TikTok showed Russian armor and artillery being transported by rail through cities along the Trans-Siberian Railway, suggesting that reinforcements may be traveling toward Russia’s border with Ukraine from nearly 4,000 miles away.
Those forces included main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, and rocket artillery, all elements of what could form new battalion tactical groups (BTGs) that could launch an attack across the border. Russia has stationed more than 50 BTGs near Ukraine, a considerable portion of the Russian armed forces’ total.
Sherman said Russia had a stark choice to make.
“If Russia walks away from the diplomatic path, it may well be quite apparent that they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy,” she said.
The Nato-Russia meeting in Brussels on Wednesday will be followed by a session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in Vienna, which will be the only one of the three diplomatic venues at which Ukraine will be directly represented in talks with Russia. European states who are not Nato members will also be represented, including Finland and Sweden who could reassess membership if Russia launches a new attack on Ukraine.
Sherman said that Washington would assess the whole week’s diplomacy before deciding on the future direction of talks.
“We will have discussions with our allies and partners in the days ahead and at the end of this week, informed by those discussions, the US and Russian governments will discuss the way forward,” she said.
At the Geneva talks, Sherman repeated the US threat to impose unprecedented sanctions in the event of an invasion of Ukraine.
“Certain threats, or at the very least warnings, were made to us,” Ryabkov confirmed, but suggested they were unnecessary because Russia had no intention of launching an invasion.