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U.S. plans to discuss missile deployments with Russia as part of effort to defuse Ukraine crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his residence outside Moscow on Jan. 4, 2022. (Evgeniy Paulin/via AP)

Negotiators for the United States are planning to show up to talks with their Russian counterparts Monday with proposals to discuss the placement of missiles and scope of military exercises in Europe, according to a senior administration official and others familiar with the plans.

The White House is looking to test whether Moscow is serious about ending the Ukraine crisis through diplomacy or is making unworkable demands as a delay tactic or pretext for a new invasion.

The bilateral talks in Geneva — with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman leading the U.S. delegation and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov serving as lead representative for the Russians — come as Moscow continues to mass forces and materiel on the border with Ukraine, threatening to take military measures if Washington and its allies fail to address the Kremlin’s security concerns.

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The Geneva talks will be followed by a special meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on Wednesday and a session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna on Thursday — chances for the United States to engage Russia together with its allies and partners.

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“Our intention is to have an open, sincere and serious dialogue about European security with the Russians at the table. We want to be inclusive. We don’t want to go over anybody’s head,” U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter said in an interview.

The multicountry engagements at NATO and the OSCE are a priority for the White House, which has regularly reassured European allies and partners, including Ukraine, that it won’t negotiate “about them, without them.” But the Geneva talks are likely to be the most substantive and closely watched indicator of whether there is a diplomatic deal to be struck that will avert a renewed war in Europe.

“The way the Russians think, there’s only one venue that matters to them and it’s the bilateral one,” said a U.S. government official specializing in Russian affairs who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. “The rest, from their point of view, is decoration.”

U.S. officials don’t know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the time is right to invade Ukraine once again and attempt to pull the country back into Russia’s strategic orbit by force, or if he is undertaking a more nebulous gambit to extract security concessions from the United States and its allies by threatening Ukraine.

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In Geneva, U.S. officials will be looking to see whether their Russian counterparts emphasize demands the Kremlin knows are nonstarters — such as providing a legally binding guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward to include Ukraine — or instead focus on areas where there is room for negotiation.

“If the Russians come on Monday and they only want to talk about NATO expansion, then we are going to be at an impasse. I think the administration is prepared to push back — that this is not up for discussion,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia expert at the Center for a New American Security. “But if the Russians want to talk about conventional arms control issues, then there is a discussion to be had — and it would raise the prospect that there could be a diplomatic solution to the crisis.”

Ahead of the talks, top U.S. officials have stepped up their rhetoric about Russian threats.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed grievances Washington has with Moscow, including Russia’s invasions of two neighboring states, election interference and attempted assassinations with chemical weapons, accusing the Kremlin of driving “the false narrative that NATO is threatening Russia.”

“That’s like the fox saying it had to attack the hen house because its occupants somehow pose a threat,” Blinken said. “We’ve seen this gaslighting before.”

Last month, the Russian Foreign Ministry published draft treaties laying out what Russia wants the United States and NATO to accede to. Parts of the texts were so unrealistic that many Western lawmakers dismissed the Russian approach as unserious. Among other things, Russia demanded the United States and its Western European military allies agree not to put weapons or forces in any of the former Warsaw Pact countries that are now members of NATO.

The drafts raised worries that Putin was looking to create a pretext for a new invasion of Ukraine once the proposals were inevitably spurned. What the Russians are willing to accept short of those demands remains unclear to American negotiators.

The U.S. government official who specializes in Russian affairs believes the Russians are still interested in a real dialogue and want to see whether Washington is willing to discuss any sort of commitment that constrains U.S. power, which for example could include placing limits on U.S. missile deployments in parts of Europe that could threaten Moscow.

“The Russians are waiting to see what we’re going to offer, and they’re going to take it back and decide is this serious?” the official said. “Is this something we can sell as a major victory for security, or is it just, from their point of view, another attempt to fob us off and not give us anything?”

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U.S. officials have also said they are proceeding on the “principle of reciprocity” and won’t cut deals unless the Russians address U.S. concerns.

“From the U.S. perspective, clearly a de-escalation of the situation in and around Ukraine is a priority,” Carpenter said.

While building up forces on Ukraine’s border, Putin has accused the West of “coming with its missiles to our doorstep” and raised the possibility of U.S. offensive missiles being placed in Ukraine. The two draft treaties Russia released both proposed limits on intermediate and short-range missiles.

A senior Biden administration official on Saturday said the United States is willing to have a discussion with Russia about the placement of missiles in Ukraine and intermediate-range missiles more broadly. 

Putin has also said that military exercises with U.S. nuclear-capable aircraft close to Russia have crossed Moscow’s red lines. The senior administration official countered that Russia has been holding ever larger and more coercive military exercises near its border with NATO allies.

“We are willing to explore the possibility of reciprocal restrictions on the size and scope of such exercises, including both strategic bombers close to each other’s territory and ground-based exercises as well,” the senior official added.

Concerns about missiles have taken on increased urgency since President Donald Trump, citing Russian violations, pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned midrange, ground-launch missiles. Putin has proposed a moratorium on such deployments as a replacement, but NATO has dismissed the suggestion as insincere, saying Russia violated the ban in the first place.

President Biden, in a phone call last month with Putin, underscored that the United States had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine, according to a Kremlin readout of the call.

U.S. allies are divided on how best to deal with Russia. Britain and the NATO allies that make up Europe’s eastern flank, including the Baltic states and Poland, want the United States to take a hard line in Geneva and offer little-to-no concessions at the outset.

“The challenge with the Russians is that if you offer anything, they just want more. Even something that is relatively modest, like the placement of missiles, risks changing the trajectory of the negotiations,” said a European official.

Other big European powers such as France, Germany and Italy want the United States to prioritize de-escalating the situation in Ukraine, fearing that a uniform denial of the Kremlin’s proposals could provide a pretext for Russia to invade.

The Geneva talks have inspired the most anxiety of the three summits, as U.S. allies on both sides of the divide lobby Washington to pursue their goals.

The senior administration official said the Geneva talks will be exploratory in nature, and the United States won’t be making any firm commitments. “Everything discussed will need to come back to Washington and also be discussed with allies later in the week,” the official said.

At the NATO-Russia Council, a large format gathering that allows representatives from Moscow and the 30 allied countries to take the floor, Russia is expected to receive heated criticisms from U.S. allies over Ukraine and other issues.

After invading neighboring Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin similarly demanded a new, legally binding European security agreement, leading to talks under the OSCE known as the Corfu process and a 2010 summit in Astana. But the efforts failed to result in a meaningful agreement.

Members of the OSCE are now discussing new talks.

“What we’re doing quietly behind the scenes is talking to all the players, including the Russians and allies and nonaligned countries, about what would be the best format for having a serious significant, meaningful results-oriented dialogue on European security,” Carpenter said. “Those discussions are ongoing.”

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