The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia-U.S. talks hit impasse over NATO expansion as Moscow denies plans to invade Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier looks through a periscope on Jan. 9 from a trench on the front line of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

Talks are being held this week about Russian forces posted near Europe’s eastern border. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the discussions were about forces on Europe’s western border.

MOSCOW — The United States and Russia remained deadlocked after crisis talks Monday over Moscow’s desire to block any future NATO expansion to the east, but officials agreed to continue discussions on other high-stakes security issues that the Biden administration hopes can avert another invasion of Ukraine.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said U.S. negotiators put forward suggestions related to the scope of American military exercises and the placement of U.S. missiles in Europe, cautioning that the bilateral discussion in Geneva, the first in a series of talks this week on Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, was only the start of a potentially lengthy process.

“We were firm, however, in pushing back on security proposals that are simply nonstarters for the United States,” she told reporters after the seven-hour meeting. “We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance.”

The talks, along with parallel discussions with European officials scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, represent a crucial test of the Biden administration’s attempt to prove that collaboration among global democracies can prevail over authoritarianism and the defiance of international norms.

Washington and Kyiv have accused Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, of concentrating more than 100,000 troops around Ukraine in an apparent threat of a multipronged attack. Russia says the movements are innocuous military maneuvers, but U.S. intelligence has found that Moscow is planning an offensive that could include as many as 175,000 forces.

Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns

Whether the talks can head off further conflict in Ukraine will probably come down to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to accept alternate security concessions from the West in lieu of the guarantees he has sought on halting NATO’s eastward growth.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking separately to reporters after Monday’s talks, denied plans to attack Ukraine and said there had been no progress on the Kremlin’s central demand: that Ukraine and other Eastern European nations be barred from NATO. But he signaled optimism about future discussions, a possible reflection of Russian satisfaction that its longtime desire to limit NATO’s posture has assumed a substantial, if disputed, role in global talks.

“We are fed up with loose talk, half-promises, misinterpretations of what happened at different forms of negotiations behind closed doors,” Ryabkov said of NATO activities in Eastern Europe and the alliance’s potential inclusion of Ukraine or Georgia. “We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees.”

“But I don’t consider the situation hopeless,” he continued. “I think the usefulness of the talks in Geneva is mainly that, for the first time, we were able to talk about issues that before existed, but as if behind the scenes.”

U.S. diplomats will discuss Ukraine with their Russian counterparts again at 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.

Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at the research organization CNA, said the standoff over NATO enlargement and cooperation with nonmember states such as Ukraine remained a “fundamental dealbreaker.”

“Ryabkov’s task was to determine whether political will exists to discuss Russia’s more fundamental demands,” he said. “There is not. What Putin does with that information is anyone’s guess, but the Russian military continues to mass forces.”

The Kremlin has portrayed the tensions with Ukraine and its Western allies as a security threat to Moscow, demanding written guarantees that the military alliance will not expand eastward or work closely with countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union.

Moscow, which has denied involvement in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine despite backing separatists there with forces and materiel, is also calling for the removal of all NATO military infrastructure installed after 1997 in Eastern European countries that are now members of the alliance.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile, ahead of the talks, reiterated U.S. warnings that Moscow would face “massive consequences” if it invaded. Speaking Sunday, he described the discussions as an opportunity to assess Putin’s willingness to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

“It’s clear that we’ve offered him two paths forward,” Blinken said on ABC News’s “This Week.” “One is through diplomacy and dialogue; the other is through deterrence and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression against Ukraine.”

Threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine tests Biden administration

U.S. officials have said that military action against Ukraine would trigger unprecedented sanctions against Russia, including potentially cutting the country off from the global financial system. But experts have questioned the extent to which financial measures would influence Russia, which is already under sanctions for the annexation of Crimea, malign cyberactivity and the treatment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned last year and later imprisoned.

Sherman voiced skepticism about Russia’s claim that its massing of forces along the country’s border with Ukraine did not constitute preparations for an invasion.

“They can prove that, in fact, they have no intention by de-escalating and returning troops to barracks,” she said.

Sherman said she and her team told the Russian delegation that the Biden administration was open to discussing topics including intermediate-range missiles, the placement of offensive missiles in Ukraine and military exercises — issues that could function as a basis for future agreements if Russia is willing to make its own concessions in exchange.

Russia, accusing the West of “coming with its missiles to our doorstep,” proposed limits on intermediate- and short-range missiles in two draft treaties it released last month.

But U.S. officials have said that some of Russia’s demands are so unrealistic, they worry that Moscow is stipulating conditions that it knows Washington will reject, with the aim of gaining domestic support in Russia and creating a pretext for possible military action against Ukraine. Other analysts contend that Putin has created the threat of a new Ukraine war simply to secure concessions from the United States and its allies.

It was not immediately clear when or where the United States and Russia might continue their discussions about potential areas of compromise.

“We do expect that, in the coming days, the United States and the Russian Federation will have an opportunity to plot out those next steps to determine when and how we should have another bilateral engagement, in close coordination with our allies and partners, to determine … if there is potential there for finding reciprocal measures that address our concerns and that take into account Russia’s own concerns,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told MSNBC.

Amid the talks this week about Russian forces posted near Europe’s eastern border, Russia deployed some 2,000 paratroopers in Kazakhstan — part of a Moscow-led military alliance contingent that went to the country to quell unrest that broke out last week.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former top adviser to Putin, said it could make Moscow appear even more serious during negotiations in Europe this week, reinforcing the effect of his troop movements near Ukraine.

“What we see from Putin now is a new language — a language of war, which he’s not waging but can threaten,” he said. “And he noticed, correctly, that the language of threatening war is accepted on the global political market and can be used to engage in discussions as long as he can confirm his readiness for war.”

Ryan and Sonne reported from Washington. John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

Read more:

Ahead of talks, U.S. again warns Putin of ‘massive consequences’ if Russia invades Ukraine

Russia’s rifts with the West keep growing. How did we get here?