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No Breakthroughs Expected as U.S. and Russia Meet in Geneva

U.S. officials are hoping Russia’s private stances offer enough room for compromise in crunch talks.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaks in Washington.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaks in Washington on Aug. 18, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S.-Russia talks over Ukraine and NATO begin in Geneva, United Nations Sudan envoy to unveil transition proposal, and Kazakhstan’s president claims to have restored order following protests.

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U.S. and Russia Begin Geneva Showdown

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S.-Russia talks over Ukraine and NATO begin in Geneva, United Nations Sudan envoy to unveil transition proposal, and Kazakhstan’s president claims to have restored order following protests.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

U.S. and Russia Begin Geneva Showdown

U.S. and Russian officials meet today in Geneva for talks aimed at calming weeks of tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine and NATO’s future in Eastern Europe.

The talks kick off a week of diplomacy across Europe, with meetings between Russia and NATO as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) planned for the following days.

At issue is a military buildup near the border with Ukraine months in the making that Western officials worry is readying an invasion while Moscow maintains its right to place its troops freely on its own territory. The Kremlin has accused NATO of expanding dangerously close to its borders and expressed fears that NATO members high-tech weaponry could eventually be used against it.

Ukraine is caught in the middle—and outside today’s discussions. Although it will eventually have a seat at the table during Thursday’s OSCE meeting, it is also reportedly following a separate negotiating track with Russia.

On Sunday, both U.S. and Russian officials sought to set the bar low for today’s encounter. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken set expectations while speaking to CNN. I dont think we’re going to see any breakthroughs in the coming week, Blinken said, while adding if diplomacy fails, the United States and its allies were “prepared to deal very resolutely with Russia if it chooses confrontation.

Those measures will likely include more sanctions, this time targeted at Russia’s financial and military technology sectors, as well as increased support for Ukraine’s military. Cutting Russia off from the crucial SWIFT bank messaging system has been mooted, although as FP colleagues Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer explored last month, other financial targets could have a bigger impact.

Nevertheless, Blinken told ABC the United States would be open to discussing some compromises: a return to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and a reassessment of the “scope and scale” of conventional military exercises in Europe that Russia has deemed provocative.

Setting the tone for today’s talks, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Sunday that U.S. statements seeking to narrow the range of concerns “reflect a lack of understanding of what we need,” which he outlined as a return to NATO’s 1997 boundaries and “curtailing of the destructive NATO activities that have been taking place for decades.”

As FP’s Mackinnon explained last week, the timing of Russia’s demands are not just an outgrowth of long-held grievances but a recognition of the rapid evolution of Ukraine’s military capabilities and a sense that an Asia-focused Biden administration might be willing to cut a deal.

The Biden administration will be hoping Russia’s stern public words are met with more pragmatic ones once today’s talks begin. “There is not always 100 percent symmetry between how they talk about these things in public and what the nature of the discussion is behind closed doors,” a senior Biden administration official told a briefing on Saturday. “Im not trying to dismiss what they say. But what they do and what they say behind closed doors is going to be much more important in determining whether there is a constructive path forward here.”

Ryabkov, speaking in Geneva after an informal dinner meeting between the two sides on Sunday, suggested Russian negotiators set a quick pace once they sit down officially with lead U.S. negotiator and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. “I don’t think we’ll be wasting time tomorrow,” Ryabkov said.

The World This Week

Monday, Jan. 10: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega begins his new term.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio hosts his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, in Rome.

Tuesday, Jan. 11: Foreign ministers from the Organization of Turkic States hold an emergency meeting on Kazakhstan.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees releases a plan for Afghanistan and the wider region.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman begins a two-day visit to Brussels.

Wednesday, Jan. 12: NATO-Russia Council meets in Brussels to discuss Ukraine tensions.

Thursday, Jan. 13: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meets in Vienna to discuss Ukraine tensions.

Friday, Jan 14: Germany releases its GDP figures for 2021.

Saturday, Jan 15: From this day forward, a booster shot is required in France to be considered fully vaccinated under the country’s health pass system. France is also scheduled to phase out a negative coronavirus test as a means of access to public spaces, mandating vaccines only.

Sunday, Jan 16: Serbia holds a constitutional referendum on whether to strengthen judicial independence.

What We’re Following Today

Sudan’s future. Volker Perthes, the United Nations envoy to Sudan, is expected to lay out the details of a peace talks proposal among all sides in an attempt to ease tensions in the country following an October 2021 military coup that upended Sudan’s political transition. Perthes’s proposal has already been rejected by one key Sudanese civilian group before it’s been announced, with the Sudanese Professionals Association saying it would not meet with the military and the “only way” toward a peaceful transition is the removal of powerful military leaders from power. Protests against the coup leaders continued in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sunday, and one protester was killed by security forces.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Africa experts Cameron Hudson and Kholood Khair argue the Biden administration must do more to support those pushing for civilian rule. “For the United States, the question now is not so much how to support democracy in Sudan,” they write. “Rather, it is how to undo Washington’s tacit support of the Sudanese generals and their effort to spin a narrative claiming they share the transformational agenda demanded by the street.”

Violence in Tigray. At least 56 people were killed and 30 more were wounded in Ethiopia’s Tigray region following an airstrike on a camp for displaced civilians on Saturday, according to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and local aid workers. The Ethiopian government has yet to respond to the report and has previously denied targeting civilians in its war with the TPLF. The United States has condemned the bombing and reiterated calls for a cease-fire.

Keep an Eye On

Mali’s transition. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to impose economic sanctions on Mali on Sunday in response to Mali’s transitional authorities’ latest proposal to postpone new elections following a 2020 military coup. The ECOWAS measures, which include border closures, come after Mali suggested an election delay until 2025 rather than next month as previously scheduled. The plan “simply means that an illegitimate military transition government will take the Malian people hostage,” an ECOWAS statement said.

Kazakhstan’s unrest. The office of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed order had been restored in the country following a week of protests that began due to a government-driven spike in fuel prices. Those authorities said 164 people had been killed in the protests and almost 6,000 people had been arrested. Tokayev is expected to name a new government on Tuesday after his previous one resigned in response to the protests.

Novak Djokovic’s visa. Serbian tennis start Novak Djokovic won his appeal in an Australian court early Monday after Australian authorities canceled his visa due to his unvaccinated status. As a result, he has been released from immigration detention, and the federal circuit court’s initial decision to cancel his visa was quashed on procedural grounds; he was not given adequate time to respond to government questions. Australias immigration minister still retains the executive power to unilaterally cancel Djokovic’s visa and is now considering the case. Cancellation by the minister could result in Djokovic being banned from the country for three years.

FP Recommends

The rapid fall of Kabul and flight of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came as a surprise to the world. And to those who represent Afghanistan in its embassies around the globe, it has been a moment of reckoning. FP colleagues Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer talked to some of the Afghan diplomats who refuse to represent the Taliban, detailing the limbo that has left them in.

Odds and Ends

The bonds between Norway’s military conscripts will be getting a lot closer as officials have mandated the reuse of all clothing and equipment—including socks and underwear—when citizens have completed their service amid a supply chain crunch. Previously, conscripts were allowed keep undergarments as well as boots.

Eirik Sjohelle Eiksund, a defense union spokesperson, has called the policy “problematic” but conceded that clothing shortages were leaving service members ill-equipped for the country’s frozen north. Military officials have confirmed that only clothing in good condition will be reused.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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