A top Russian diplomat pressed the United States on Monday (US time) to ease a post-Cold War chill over Ukraine, ratcheting up Moscow's demands that NATO pledge to stop giving membership to former Soviet states and halt weapons shipments to them that have led to what he called a "precarious" standoff.
With both sides dug in on their positions, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said "no progress" was made on the central demand to halt NATO expansion, although he insisted: "We have no intention to invade Ukraine."
Ryabkov spoke after his delegation wrapped up roughly 5-1/2 hours of talks with a U.S. team led by his U.S. counterpart, Wendy Sherman. The talks by senior U.S. and Russian officials are part of a flurry of diplomatic activity in Europe this week aimed at defusing tensions over a Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine.
Putin described NATO's expansion to Ukraine and other Russian ex-Soviet neighbours as a "red line" for Moscow and demanded binding guarantees from the West that they wouldn't become members of the alliance.
"The situation now is so dangerous, and so -- I would say -- precarious that we cannot afford any further delays in resolution of this very fundamental question. As President Putin said, on many occasions, 'we cannot backpedal. We cannot go backwards. There is no further space for us to do so.'" Ryabkov said.
Speaking at a news conference at the Russian mission in Geneva just as Sherman held a separate conference call with reporters, Ryabkov rattled off Russian concerns and demands first issued last month on subjects like NATO expansion and wanting Western commitments not to deploy offensive weapons near Russian borders.
"The American side has treated the Russian proposals seriously and deeply studied them," he said, adding that he characterized Moscow's demand for legally binding guarantees that NATO would not move eastward was "an absolute imperative for us." He emphasised that it would be hard to work on other issues if the U.S. stonewalled on the key Russian demands.
"Without advances on those key issues that are absolutely essential for us, it would be problematic to work on other aspects," he added, apparently alluding to arms control and other thorny dossiers between the two countries.
Moscow has sought to wrest a string of concessions from the U.S. and its Western allies, and has massed an estimated 100,000 troops in steps that have raised concerns about a possible military intervention there.
Sherman called Monday's talks a "frank and forthright discussion."
"Today was a discussion of a better understanding of each other and each other's priorities and concerns," she said. "It was not what you would call a negotiation. We're not to a point where we're ready to set down texts and begin to go back and forth."
"We were firm, however, on pushing back on security proposals that are simply nonstarters for the United States," Sherman said, adding "we will not allow anyone" to shut NATO's "open-door policy" that extends to countries seeking entry in the alliance.
"We will not forgo bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States. And, we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe or about NATO without NATO."
Echoing similar comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Sherman said progress could only happen if Russia "stays at the table and takes concrete steps to de-escalate tensions."
"We've made it clear that if Russia further invades Ukraine there will be significant costs and consequences well beyond what they faced in 2014," she said. "Russia has a stark choice to make."
The meeting was part of "Strategic Security Dialogue" talks on arms control and other broad issues launched by Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden at a June summit in the Swiss city. Talks between Russia and NATO are planned Wednesday in Brussels followed by a meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday, where the showdown will also loom large.
The U.S. has played down hopes of significant progress this week and said some demands — like a possible halt to NATO expansion — go against countries' sovereign rights to set up their own security arrangements, and are thus non-negotiable.
But U.S. officials have expressed openness to other ideas, like curtailing possible future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and putting limits on American and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe — if Russia is willing to back off on Ukraine.
Blinken said bluntly Sunday that he doesn't expect any breakthroughs. Instead, he said a more likely positive outcome would be an agreement to de-escalate tensions in the short term and return to talks at an appropriate time in the future. But the U.S. will have to see a de-escalation for there to be actual progress.
"It's very hard to see that happening when there's an ongoing escalation, when Russia has a gun to the head of Ukraine with 100,000 troops near its borders, the possibility of doubling that on very short order," Blinken said on ABC's This Week.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also sought to play down expectations earlier Monday.
"I don't think that we can expect that these meetings will solve all the issues," he told reporters in Brussels on Monday after talks with Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. "What we are hoping for is that we can agree on a way forward, that we can agree on a series of meetings, that we can agree on a process."
During a visit to Rome, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said dialogue offered the only way out of the crisis.
"At the same time, it's equally clear that a renewed breach of Ukrainian sovereignty by Russia would have grave consequences."
Russia has said it wants the issue resolved this month, but NATO is wary that Putin might be looking for a pretext, such as a failure in the negotiations, to launch an invasion.
The United States, which has emphasised that Ukraine's government and those of other European countries need to be included in the discussions, plans to discuss some bilateral issues in Geneva "but will not discuss European security without our European allies and partners", State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.