Report

Russia Talks Show No Sign of a Quick Resolution on Ukraine Crisis

U.S. and allies bat down Russian proposals to halt NATO expansion.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addresses a press conference.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addresses a press conference following a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Jan. 12. John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine Border Crisis

A flurry of high-level diplomacy between trans-Atlantic allies and Russia to defuse the Ukraine crisis ended without any significant breakthroughs—or breakdowns—in talks this week. NATO allies unanimously rejected Russia’s calls for new security arrangements in Europe, which would bar the alliance from expanding to new members, after contentious talks with their Russian counterparts this week. Russian officials blamed the United States for the impasse in negotiations. 

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led talks with her Russian counterparts in Geneva and Brussels this week, told reporters at a Brussels press conference on Thursday it was too soon to tell whether the talks would yield any results in the long run. 

“Everyone—Russia most of all—will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext,” Sherman said. “And they may not even know yet.”

A flurry of high-level diplomacy between trans-Atlantic allies and Russia to defuse the Ukraine crisis ended without any significant breakthroughs—or breakdowns—in talks this week. NATO allies unanimously rejected Russia’s calls for new security arrangements in Europe, which would bar the alliance from expanding to new members, after contentious talks with their Russian counterparts this week. Russian officials blamed the United States for the impasse in negotiations. 

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led talks with her Russian counterparts in Geneva and Brussels this week, told reporters at a Brussels press conference on Thursday it was too soon to tell whether the talks would yield any results in the long run. 

“Everyone—Russia most of all—will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext,” Sherman said. “And they may not even know yet.”

In the near term, the talks did little to defuse Russian military escalation on Ukraine’s border, where it has amassed more than 100,000 troops and hinted it would launch another invasion into Ukraine as the country continues to shift toward the West and away from Moscow’s orbit. 

Russia has demanded sweeping security guarantees from the West, which seeks to redraw much of Europe’s post-Cold War security arrangements. In draft treaties published online in December 2021, the Kremlin demanded guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia would never be admitted to NATO and that the alliance withdraws its forces from Central and Eastern Europe.

U.S. and NATO officials have made clear that Moscow’s demands regarding the alliance’s expansion and deployments are a nonstarter, but discussions on broader questions of European security—such as arms control, increased transparency around military exercises, and improved lines of communication—could be in all parties’ interests. 

Top Biden administration officials doubled down on threats of massive retaliatory economic sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion. “Should Russia follow the path of confrontation and military action, we’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures,” Julianne Smith, U.S. ambassador to NATO, told reporters this week. “As an alliance, we are prepared to reinforce NATO’s defense on the eastern flank, and we are prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

But U.S. President Joe Biden has ruled out sending U.S. forces to Ukraine in the event of a renewed Russian invasion. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, which is founded on a treaty that obligates its members to help defend any ally if attacked. 

In a White House briefing on Thursday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declined to comment on the likelihood that Russia would launch a renewed attack on Ukraine. “What I’m going to say is that the United States and our allies and partners are prepared for any contingency, any eventuality,” he said. “We’re prepared to keep moving forward down the diplomatic path in good faith, and we’re prepared to respond if Russia acts.” Sullivan also said the U.S. intelligence community had picked up information that suggests Russia is laying the groundwork to fabricate a pretext for invasion.

Russian officials have offered mixed assessments about this week’s talks. After a nearly eight-hour meeting with Sherman on Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov offered a sober assessment of their discussion. “The conversation was difficult, lengthy, very professional, profound, and concrete,” he said. “There were no attempts to embellish anything or to skirt contentious issues.” 

By Thursday, Ryabkov struck a very different tone, refusing to rule out a Russian military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela should talks fail, and said he saw no need for further talks unless the United States or NATO were willing to compromise. 

“We are not going to respond to bluster,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to Ryabkov’s remarks regarding any deployments to Latin America. “If Russia actually started moving in that direction, we would deal with it decisively.”

The political opposition in Venezuela, which sees itself as Venezuela’s legitimate government, swiftly rebuked Ryabkov’s remarks. “Venezuela cannot be used as a pawn in a geopolitical game between the powers of the world,” its embassy in Washington said in a statement

The change in tone from Russian diplomats “really does underline that the deal they want to make is with the Americans,” said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia with the International Crisis Group. “They don’t want to talk to NATO. It’s also very clear they did not get the deal that they want.” 

Former U.S. officials who have negotiated with Russia note that Russian diplomats aren’t endowed with much decision-making power, and ultimately, the final decision on what Russia does rests solely with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “They don’t know Putin’s bottom line, and they’re all terrified of him,” said Daniel Fried, who served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe during the George W. Bush administration. 

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he expected U.S. negotiators would “put down on paper” their response to Russia’s proposals. 

“That at least suggests that conversation isn’t completely dead yet, but they also said they don’t want to have any more talks, which is not very promising,” Oliker said. “Anyone who thought that this was going to get solved this week was misreading the situation.” 

In a briefing on Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said there would likely be further engagement with Russia in the coming days, but he did not offer details as to what form that would take. “The bottom line for us is that continued engagement, continued diplomacy and dialogue, would be a good thing,” Price said. “We hope the Russians will continue to engage.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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