US, Russia set firm lines ahead of Ukraine, security talks

Ukrainians hold placards in solidarity with demonstrators in Kazakhstan outside the country’s embassy in Kyiv

The United States and Russia set out firm lines Sunday ahead of talks on Ukraine, with Washington warning of the risk of confrontation and Moscow ruling out concessions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Russia to steer away from aggression and choose the diplomatic path as the Kremlin, facing strong pressure to pull back troops from the Ukrainian border, demands wide-ranging new security arrangements with the West.

Ryabkov and his US counterpart, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, were to hold a working dinner Sunday in Geneva, with a full day of talks to follow on Monday.

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“There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation,” Blinken told CNN television.

– ‘Gun to Ukraine’s head’ –

The Kremlin is insisting NATO must never grant membership to ex-Soviet Ukraine, which is pushing to join.

Blinken warned that any positive outcome from the talks would rely in part on Russia’s willingness to stand down from its aggressive posture, which he likened to “an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head”.

Russia could otherwise face severe economic and financial consequences, “as well as NATO almost certainly having to reinforce its position near Russia as well as continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine”, he told ABC television.

Before departing for Geneva, Ryabkov said: “We will not agree to any concession. That is completely excluded.

– ‘Massive’ retaliation –

Measures under consideration include sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, cancelling Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany or, in the most drastic scenario, severing Russia’s links to the world’s banking system.

Instead, the US-led alliance welcomed most of the former Warsaw Pact countries and the three Baltic nations that were under Soviet rule.

“So NATO should pack up and return to the borders of 1997,” Ryabkov said.

Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and backs an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.

In spite “of the threats that are constantly formulated against us… we will make no concession,” he said, adding it would “amount to acting against the interests of our security”.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, meeting foreign ministers of the alliance on Friday, said there remained real risks of a Russian invasion.

“They are trying to see if the Biden administration or Europe will blink,” said Herbst, now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the Geneva talks were more about preventing the Ukraine crisis from accelerating than reaching a major deal.

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