Russia downplays threat to Ukraine in talks with US

Ukrainian army soldier standing next to a machine gun at the defence line in Verkhnotoretske village that is situated on the very frontline between Ukraine and DPR armies positions
A Ukrainian soldier stationed at the country’s border with Russia. Moscow has deployed thousands of troops to its side of the border

Russia has told the US that it has no intention of invading Ukraine, after officials from both countries met for high-stakes talks in Geneva.

After a meeting that lasted for seven hours on Monday, both sides agreed to continue efforts to reduce tensions. But there was no sign of a major breakthrough following the talks. Around 100,000 Russian troops are believed to be near the border with Ukraine, prompting fears of an incursion and warnings from the West.

The US has said there would be sanctions if Russia were to attack Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, has warned the US not to “underestimate the risks” involved in Moscow’s confrontation with the West. “We explained to our colleagues that we have no plans, no intentions to attack Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters following the meeting.

He said the Russians had told their US counterparts “that all measures for the combat training of troops and forces are carried out within our territory” and that there was “no reason to fear any escalation scenario in this regard”. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman described the talks as “frank and forthright” discussions designed to encourage a better understanding of each side’s security concerns.

This was the first chance Russian and American diplomats had to discuss face to face the standoff over Ukraine, and Russia’s demands for Nato to step back from eastern Europe. And while little agreement appears to have been reached, both sides aired their concerns and set out their demands with at least the possibility of talks continuing in the future.

Yet the gap between both sides remains large. The US urged Russia to de-escalate the situation and remove its troops from Ukraine’s border but it received no assurance that would happen. Russia demanded that Nato should give a cast-iron guarantee it would never offer membership to Ukraine. The US rejected this outright. The US offered some ideas for both countries to limit military exercises and missile deployments but there was no sense this would be enough for Russia.

Optimists will point to the fact the talks were business-like, they did not break up in acrimony and Russia insisted it had no intention of invading Ukraine. Pessimists will note that even after such assurances, US officials said they were still not sure if Russia was serious about finding a diplomatic solution to this crisis. Ms Sherman said the US had pushed back on Russian proposals that were “non-starters” for the US government, including Russia’s demand that Nato commit to never include Ukraine in the alliance.

“We will not allow anyone to slam closed Nato’s open-door policy, which has always been central to the Nato alliance,” she said. According to Ms Sherman, the US delegation told the Russians that any invasion would be met with “significant cost and consequences well beyond what they faced in 2014” when Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.

These measures could include sanctions against key financial institutions, export controls, “enhancements of Nato force posture on allied territory” and increased security assistance to Ukraine, she added. Mr Ryabkov said the talks had been “business-like and professional” but warned the US not to “underestimate the risks” of the tensions.

The Geneva talks are the first of several meetings between US, allied and Russian officials this week, which will also include a meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels and at the permanent council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes Russia.

Monday’s meeting, however, took place without the participation of US European allies, including Ukraine, prompting reassurances from Ms Sherman and other US officials that Ukraine, Europe and Nato would be included in any decisions.

Earlier on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles said he believed a Russian invasion was still possible. “There are 100,000 Russian troops on the other side of the border,” he said. “I suppose they haven’t gone there to drink coffee! Mr Borrell added that he’d been told nothing would be agreed without the EU’s “strong co-operation, co-ordination and participation”.

Russia has repeatedly denied it has any plans to launch a military operation in Ukraine. Last month, the Russian government published a series of demands including a commitment that Ukraine will never join Nato.

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