Russia Warns That U.S. Doesn’t Understand Its Goals on Ukraine

As the two countries prepared to meet amid rising tensions over Ukraine, a senior Russian official and the U.S. Secretary of State set a pessimistic tone.

As the two countries prepared to meet amid rising tensions over Ukraine, a senior Russian official and the U.S. Secretary of State set a pessimistic tone.

GENEVA — Russian and American officials appeared pessimistic on Sunday that high-stakes negotiations would close the widening gulf between Moscow and the West, with a senior Russian official warning that the United States had a “lack of understanding” of the Kremlin’s security demands, and the United States voicing doubts over whether Russia was “serious” about de-escalating the Ukraine crisis.

The comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov maintained the hard-line rhetoric that some analysts and Western officials see as a possible prelude to new Russian military action against Ukraine, and seemed to lower expectations just hours before he opened the session with a private dinner in a residential building on the Geneva lakefront with Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state.

In remarks reported by Russian news agencies, Mr. Ryabkov said he was intent on negotiating “dynamically, without pauses,” to prevent the West from “putting the brakes on all this and burying it in endless discussions.”

Mr. Ryabkov’s comments came several hours before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, appearing on several Sunday morning television programs, said he thought there was room for negotiation.

While he ruled out encroachments on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and reductions in American troop levels, he opened the door to a possible revival of a treaty abandoned by the Trump administration and mutual limits on where troops could be deployed and exercises conducted.

The negotiations, Mr. Blinken insisted, are “not about making concessions” under the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, eight years after it annexed Crimea.

“It’s about seeing whether, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides, all sides can do to reduce tensions,” he said on CNN. “We’ve done that in the past.”

Several times on Sunday, Mr. Blinken raised the possibility of reviving the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the deployment, in Europe or in Russia, of medium-range nuclear missiles.Both the Obama and Trump administrations accused Moscow of violating the accord, and the United States left the treaty in 2019.

“There may be ground for renewing that,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

And Mr. Blinken raised the idea of revising an agreement on the deployment of conventional forces in Europe that could keep military exercises far from borders — and thus reduce the fear that an exercise could become the leaping-off point for an invasion. “Those are certainly things that can be revisited if — if Russia is serious about doing it.

The Russians were incensed this fall when the United States and allied NATO forces conducted exercises in the Black Sea, near the Ukrainian and Russian coasts.

Privately, American officials have little hope that Mr. Putin would be satisfied with agreements that restore the status quo of a few years ago. And their concern is that the Russians will emerge from the Geneva talks, and others this week in Brussels and Vienna, declaring that diplomacy has failed — and that Mr. Putin will attempt to seize more of Eastern Ukraine, or carry out cyber or other attacks to cripple the government in Kyiv.

Still, Mr. Blinken’s statements appeared intended to create an opening, leaving the possibility of moving some heavy weaponry out of Poland, or limiting the scope of military exercises in Europe, in return for reciprocal actions by Russia — which presumably would have to include pulling troops back from the Ukraine border.

After a two-hour dinner with Ms. Sherman in Geneva Sunday evening, Mr. Ryabkov emerged sounding a slightly more positive tone. The talks were not “easy, but in principle, businesslike,” Mr. Ryabkov told reporters, adding. “I don’t think we will be wasting time tomorrow.”

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

A measured approach. President Biden has said he is seeking a stable relationship with Russia. So far, his administration is focusing on maintaining a dialogue with Moscow, while seeking to develop deterrence measures in concert with European countries.

Russia is seeking what it calls “security guarantees” from the United States and the NATO alliance that would essentially grant the country the kind of sphere of influence it has not enjoyed for more than 30 years, including Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin has been backing up those demands by massing tens of thousands of troops and equipment near its border with Ukraine, signaling that it is prepared to use force if diplomacy fails.

While Mr. Blinken attempted to focus the discussion on missile basing and military exercises in the region,Mr. Ryabkov said that Russia’s aims in the talks would go well beyond arms-control issues. Signals sent by American officials ahead of the talks, he said, “reflect a lack of understanding of what we need,” according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

Mr. Ryabkov said that Russia would seek to revise the relationship with the West that was put in place with the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. That agreement was followed by countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence joining the Western alliance, and many in Moscow see it as having disregarded Russia’s security interests in Europe.

“We need to assure the curtailing of the destructive NATO activities that have been taking place for decades and bring NATO back to positions that are essentially equivalent to what was the case in 1997,” Mr. Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “But it is precisely on these issues that we hear least of all any readiness on the part of the American side and NATO to come to an agreement.”

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