US, Russian officials meet in Geneva as Ukraine tensions mount

Washington is seeking to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine while the Kremlin eyes expansive security demands.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov
Monday's meeting involves Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (pictured) and Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state [File: Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP]

Officials from Russia and the United States are holding security talks in Geneva, launching a week of diplomatic activity in Europe aimed at defusing tensions over Ukraine.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and his delegation arrived with a police escort at the US diplomatic mission in the Swiss city for Monday’s face-to-face discussions with Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, and her team.

The meeting, which started shortly before 08:00 GMT, is seen as a possible first step towards rekindling dialogue between Moscow and Washington, with the pair’s ties at a low point over Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine.

But diplomats on both sides were pessimistic over the prospects for progress.

Ryabkov said over the weekend it was entirely possible the diplomacy could end after a single meeting, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken played down expectations for any breakthroughs.

Military build-up

Washington says Russia has deployed an estimated 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine in recent months, eight years after it seized the Crimean peninsula from its neighbour and shortly after supported a separatist rebellion in the country’s east.

The military action has raised fears in Kyiv and US President Joe Biden’s White House of another Russian incursion.

The US and Ukraine’s other Western allies, including the European Union and United Kingdom, have promised to impose severe penalties on Russia – expected to take the shape of sweeping sanctions – if it launches an offensive.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied he plans to invade Ukraine and blamed the US-headed NATO transatlantic military alliance for undermining the region’s security.

Last month, Moscow unveiled a wish list of security demands to calm tensions.

Many are seen as non-starters in the West, in particular a demand that NATO promises to give up military activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

‘Talks could end in acrimony’

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said US negotiators would “begin to test Russia’s real intent” during Monday’s discussions, which form part of the Strategic Security Dialogue talks launched by Biden and Putin during a June 2021 summit in Geneva.

“There are not many people who are expecting anything like an agreement to come out of these talks today,” he said.

“It is being seen as a start, albeit one that could potentially end in acrimony and collapse, and the best hope is that they will be able to exchange concerns at this moment and look for possible common ground.”

The negotiations will be followed by Russia-NATO talks in Brussels on Wednesday and a meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe on Thursday.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that negotiations between Russia and the West may not resolve all issues this week but could provide a pathway to avoid conflict.

“It is possible to make deals with Russia,” Stoltenberg told a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels alongside Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna.

But he also warned Moscow of “severe costs” if it launches a fresh attack on Ukraine, saying the alliance backed Kyiv’s right to defend itself.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies