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Questions About Russia's Commitment To Diplomacy Persist After High-Stakes Talks With The U.S.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (left) and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met for seven hours on January 10. (file photo)
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (left) and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met for seven hours on January 10. (file photo)

When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman emerged from more than seven hours of talks with a senior Russian diplomat at one of the tensest moments since the Cold War, she was clear about one thing.

She wasn’t sure if Moscow was committed to the discussions.

“Russia understands that the best way to pursue diplomacy is for them to reduce those tensions and to de-escalate,” she said, referring to a major troop buildup that has raised fears of a new military offensive targeting Ukraine.

“We'll see how serious they are.”

Sherman entered the January 10 meeting in Geneva ready to put missile placement and military exercises on the table in negotiations with Moscow in an attempt to defuse tensions and reduce the chances that Russia would attack Ukraine.

The talks were initiated after Russia massed about 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and in Russian-controlled Crimea in late autumn before presenting the United States and NATO with a list of security demands.

The demands include an end to NATO’s eastward expansion and to cooperation with former Soviet republics that are not members of the Western military alliance -- in particular Ukraine. Russia is also calling for limitations in Europe on missile deployment and military exercises.

After the talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Sherman said she made clear that the first two demands -- which would keep Ukraine out of NATO forever and bar military cooperation with Kyiv -- are nonstarters.

"We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO's open-door policy, which has always been central to the alliance. We will not forgo bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States,” Sherman told reporters following the meeting.

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She said the United States offered to meet again “soon” with Russia to discuss bilateral issues in greater detail, including missile deployments and military exercises.

Ryabkov, meanwhile, said that Moscow favors “the continuation of dialogue” and described the talks with Sherman, which began with a shorter session on January 9, as having been “very professional.”

"We got the impression that the American side took the Russian proposals very seriously and carried out their in-depth study," said Ryabkov, who days earlier had warned that Moscow could walk out quickly if it felt it wasn’t being heard.

But he said there had been “no progress” on Russia’s demand for a binding guarantee that Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics never join NATO.

And ahead of subsequent talks with NATO on January 12 and in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), he left the door open for Moscow to make its exit from the diplomacy at any moment.

“This is one of the major problems before us,” Ryabkov said of the impasse over the demands on NATO enlargement and military cooperation. “And I would say the rest depends to a great extent on what will happen further down the road on precisely this issue."

Dedicated To Diplomacy?

Ryabkov’s remarks added to existing questions about Russia’s commitment to diplomacy, analysts said.

“The U.S. side would have liked to come out of today's discussions understanding whether the Russians are serious about negotiating and I don't think that we got the answer to that today,” Angela Stent, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia and a professor at Georgetown University, told RFE/RL.

William Courtney, a former career diplomat who took part in U.S.-Soviet defense talks, said the U.S. proposals on missile deployments and exercises are essentially a return to the arms control and confidence-building measures that had existed between the two nations but which the United States accused Russia of violating, leading to their demise.

Courtney said the U.S. negotiating position puts the Kremlin in a tough spot: If it attacks Ukraine, it will incur severe economic sanctions, and if it accepts deals negotiated in the past, it has to “figure out…how to handle this as an accomplishment” in terms of domestic propaganda.

If Russia is seen as backing down on its demands, some in the domestic audience would perceive that as a “big embarrassment or humiliation.”

However, other analysts have said they believe the Kremlin would be willing to accept any compromise that advances its goals, and that the extent of state control over the media, the elites, and the security apparatus in Russia would enable Putin to spin trade-offs with Washington and NATO as victories.

Sherman will lead the U.S. delegation to the NATO-Russia Council meeting on January 12 in Brussels, where the Kremlin’s security demands and the West’s concerns about Moscow’s actions will again be in the spotlight.

The meeting will feature delegations from all 30 NATO nations and Russia.

On January 13, delegations from the United States and Russia are to take part in a meeting of the OSCE in Vienna, concluding nearly a week of talks.

Sherman said the United States and Russia will convene again at the end of the week after those two meetings and “discuss the way forward.”

Stent said the United States is unlikely to get an answer in the coming days about whether Russia is serious or not about pursuing diplomacy.

“I would think it's still going to take a couple of weeks,” she said, adding that if Russia intends to pursue diplomacy, it could begin to pull troops back from areas near the Ukrainian border slowly to avoid “losing face.”

If Russia chooses aggression, Sherman said, “it may well be quite apparent that they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy at all.”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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