With diplomats publicly pessimistic, the United States and Russia began difficult negotiations in Geneva on Monday that Washington hopes can avert the danger of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine without conceding to the Kremlin's far-reaching security demands.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said the diplomacy could end after a single meeting, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken 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 talks between Ryabkov and Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman began at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva with U.S.-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.
Sherman said "the U.S. 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.
Nearly 100,000 Russian troops are gathered within reach of the border with Ukraine in preparation for what Washington and Kyiv say could be a new invasion, eight years after Russia seized the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.
Russia denies invasion plans and said it is responding to what it calls 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 United States and NATO say large parts of the Russian proposals are non-starters.
Ryabkov told RIA news agency Russia would not accept U.S. attempts to limit the agenda to discussion of military exercises and missile deployments - the topics outlined by the Biden 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.
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."
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will meet the Russian team on Wednesday in Brussels, said Russia and the West may not resolve all issues this week but 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," Stoltenberg said.
Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna, appearing alongside him, said Russia's demands "cannot be considered as a negotiating position."
She told reporters the "aggressor is not in a position to put conditions" while Russian tanks remained near the Ukrainian border.
U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and European allies would impose tough sanctions if Russia chose to invade Ukraine. Putin said new sanctions could lead to a "complete breakdown in ties."
In a preliminary meeting with Ryabkov on Sunday evening, Sherman emphasized Washington's commitments to sovereignty, territorial integrity "and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances," the State Department said.
Ryabkov told reporters his meeting with Sherman had been "complex but businesslike," Russian news agency Interfax said.
Ryabkov has compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.
The United States and allies have said they are prepared to discuss the possibility of each side restricting military exercises and missile deployments in the region.
Both sides will put proposals on the table and then see if there are grounds for moving forward, Blinken said on Sunday.
If diplomacy fails, and Moscow acts against Ukraine, the United States has been discussing with allies and partners in Europe and Asia a range of trade restrictions against Moscow, a source familiar with the plan said.
One restriction could target critical Russian industrial sectors, including defense and civil aviation, and would hit Russia's high-tech ambitions, such as in artificial intelligence or quantum computing, or even consumer electronics.
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