Delegations from the U.S. and Russia will hold talks Monday, kicking off a critical week of diplomacy between Moscow and the West over Russian President Vladimir Putin menacing neighboring Ukraine.
Ahead of the negotiations, a senior Biden administration official said the United States was open to discussing limits on missile deployments and troop exercises in Europe.
For weeks now, Russia has massed nearly 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders and sharpened its rhetoric to blame Kyiv, the U.S., and NATO for provoking a conflict — heightening fears in Washington and beyond that Putin is laying the pretext for a full-scale invasion.
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Russia has denied that, but under the threat of war, it has issued a list of demands in two draft treaties last month that would remake Europe with greater Russian influence — its most profound challenge to the post-Cold War landscape in three decades.
While U.S. officials have said many are nonstarters, like barring Ukraine from NATO membership, President Joe Biden is trying to challenge Moscow on its premise, saying the U.S. and NATO are willing to negotiate if Russia de-escalates tensions.
But whether Russia is really willing to engage and walk back from the cliff of conflict – or whether Putin already intends to finish a job he started in 2014 with his seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and his start of a war in eastern Ukraine – is an open question, especially after Russia deployed troops to quell protests in Kazakhstan.
“We believe there are areas where we can make progress if Moscow is realistic in its approach. We can’t be sure until the talks take place — that’s the nature of diplomacy,” said a senior State Department official.
On Saturday, a senior Biden administration official told reporters that the U.S. and Russia may be able to find agreement on the topics of missile deployments in Europe and the size of troop exercises on either side of Russia’s borders with NATO members.
Specifically, the official said, Putin does not want offensive missile systems placed in Ukraine, and Biden has already made clear to Putin that “the United States has no intention of doing that.”
The U.S. was also open to discussing the future of certain missile systems in Europe, in the context of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which the Trump administration withdrew and which the U.S. accuses Russia of violating, according to the official.
And as troop deployments have ratcheted up tensions in eastern Europe, the official said the U.S. would consider restrictions on troops exercises near the borders Russia shares with NATO members.
“We are willing to explore the possibility of reciprocal restrictions on the size and scope of such exercises,” the official said, “including both strategic bombers close to each other’s territory and ground-based exercises, as well.”
The U.S. would consult its allies and partners before making any commitments related to their security interests, the official said, adding that any commitments would have to be reciprocal — meaning the U.S. and Russia would “need to make essentially the same commitment.”
The official said bilateral negotiations would primarily take place Monday would there would “likely” be an “initial conversation” on Sunday night.
If Russia and the U.S. are not able to make progress, and if Russia moves ahead with an attack on the former Soviet state, Biden has threatened high-impact sanctions from the U.S. and its allies, including the G7, the European Union, and NATO, as well as NATO deployments to its eastern members and additional arms to Ukraine. But the president has made clear the U.S. will not send troops to defend Ukraine, leaving the ball ultimately in Putin’s court.
The New York Times on Saturday reported that, if Russia further invades Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies were considering “cutting off Russia’s largest financial institutions from global transactions, imposing an embargo on American-made or American-designed technology needed for defense-related and consumer industries, and arming insurgents in Ukraine who would conduct what would amount to a guerrilla war against a Russian military occupation, if it comes to that.”
The White House’s National Security Council declined to comment on the report.
After Monday’s one-on-one meetings, NATO will hold a meeting with Russia Wednesday — its first in two and a half years amid icy tensions — and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a critical Cold War-era forum that has deployed a war monitor in eastern Ukraine, will convene Thursday.
Those other two rounds of talks are equally important in defusing tensions, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has consistently reiterated the administration’s line that they will decide “nothing about Europe without Europe” — adopted from an old Polish saying.
“What’s happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine. It’s part of a broader pattern of destabilizing, dangerous, and often illegal behavior by Moscow,” Blinken said in a firm speech Friday, rejecting Russia’s version of recent history. “If Russia has legitimate concerns about our actions, the United States, our NATO allies, our OSCE partners are willing to hear them and to try to address them — if the Kremlin is prepared to reciprocate regarding its own dangerous and destabilizing behavior.”
Even after two calls between Biden and Putin in December, U.S. officials are still uncertain if Putin is bluffing and seeking concessions from the U.S. and NATO. But they have said repeatedly they will not compromise on key issues, including Ukraine’s security and its potential membership in the alliance.
That deep gulf makes it unlikely that Monday’s meetings will yield any immediate results — beyond more talks — especially because the U.S. has said it will only negotiate on issues between it and Russia, not the threats around Ukraine.
MORE: Russia makes sweeping demands for security guarantees from US amid Ukraine tensions
“Hopefully it will result in identifying a few bilateral issues where there is enough common ground to continue discussions and ultimately address together,” said a second senior State Department official. “Our hope is that we can follow up this meeting relatively quickly.”
When the Russian delegation raises what it has cast as the threat from Ukraine, as it has done publicly now for weeks, the U.S. will listen, the official added, “because we are wanting to have a dialogue with them.” But “we are not going to talk above the heads of our European allies and partners,” they added.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead the U.S. delegation in Geneva, Switzerland, accompanied by Pentagon and White House National Security Council officials and the top U.S. diplomat for arms control, Bonnie Jenkins. Arms control is one area where U.S. officials have expressed some optimism that they could find common ground with Russia, especially after two previous rounds of talks between Sherman and Jenkins and their counterparts.
The day-long talks Monday will be followed by a meeting Wednesday between Russia and NATO — the first since July 2019. Sherman will lead the U.S. delegation there — a sign the meeting is equally important to the Biden administration as Monday’s one-on-one sessions, according to the first senior State Department official.
But even as the administration has repeated its “nothing about Europe without Europe” mantra, some European officials have expressed concern about the U.S. and Russia meeting without them.
“There are not two actors alone. It is not just the U.S. and Russia. If we want to talk about security in Europe, Europeans have to be part of the table,” said Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top diplomat, during a visit to Ukraine Wednesday.
Concerns were particularly heightened Friday after an NBC News report said the U.S. is weighing removing some troops from eastern Europe in exchange for Russia pulling its troops back; what critics cast as appeasement to Putin’s threats.
But the Biden administration called the report “erroneous,” with a third senior State Department official saying they are not weighing troop cuts to Europe, will not discuss U.S. troops in Poland and the Baltics with Russia, and are not compiling a list of potential troop cuts for the talks.
State Department officials went even further — warning U.S. allies that after Monday’s talks conclude, Russia is likely to lie about what took place in the meetings.
“We fully expect that the Russian side will make public comments following the meeting on Monday that will not reflect the true nature of the discussions that took place. We would urge our allies and partners to view those comments with extreme skepticism and to continue their ongoing discussions and coordination with the United States,” the first senior State Department official said.
With tension and distrust so high, and expectations low, the administration is being warned not to concede any ground to Putin’s negotiators after Moscow has escalated the situation to a crisis point.
“The war talk in Moscow may be a sort of psychological operation to soften up the West, frighten West Europeans, and divide Putin’s western adversaries so that a lesser Russian attack — seizing another slice of Ukraine rather than a full-scale invasion, or stationing Russian forces along the Polish frontier, or ‘mere’ cyber attacks and physical sabotage in Kyiv — is greeted with relief and thus accepted,” wrote Daniel Fried, a retired U.S. ambassador who served as the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, ambassador to Poland, and top sanctions official.
Threading that needle between addressing “whatever is legitimate in Moscow’s long litany of grievance” and pushing “back against Putin’s aggression and pretentions to resume Russia’s domination of Europe’s eastern half” will not be easy, Fried added. But it is a critical moment in the future of the international system the U.S. midwifed in the 20th century, with the lives of many on the line, especially Ukrainians.
“The people of Ukraine has been fighting this war for seven years now, and we know how to fight and we know how to win,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told ABC News last year. “This is our land, our soil, and we will be defending it. But it’s much easier to defend it when you have friends and allies in the back.”