WASHINGTON (AP) -- With the fate of Ukraine and potentially broader post-Cold War European stability at stake, the United States and Russia are holding critical strategic talks that could shape the future of not only their relationship but the relationship between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Prospects are bleak.
Though the immediacy of the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine will top the agenda in a series of high-level meetings that get underway today, there is a litany of festering but largely unrelated disputes, ranging from arms control to cybercrime and diplomatic issues, for Washington and Moscow to overcome if tensions are to ease. And the recent deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan may cast a shadow over the entire exercise.
With much at risk and both warning of dire consequences of failure, the two sides have been positioning themselves for what will be a nearly unprecedented flurry of activity in Europe this week. Yet the wide divergence in their opening positions bodes ill for any type of speedy resolution, and levels of distrust appear higher than at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said bluntly Sunday he doesn't expect any breakthroughs in the coming week. 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."
U.S. officials Saturday unveiled some details of the administration's stance, which seem to fall well short of Russian demands. The officials said the U.S. is open to discussions on 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.
But they also said Russia will be hit hard with economic sanctions should it intervene in Ukraine. In addition to direct sanctions on Russian entities, those penalties could include significant restrictions on products exported from the U.S. to Russia and potentially foreign-made products subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who will lead Russia's delegation at the Geneva talks, responded harshly to Blinken's statment.
"Demands of the United States and other NATO countries that we carry out some de-escalation measures on our territory are excluded from the discussion. This is a non-starter in the literal sense of the word," Ryabkov said in an interview with the Tass news agency.
Russia wants the talks initially to produce formally binding security guarantees for itself with a pledge NATO will not further expand eastward and the removal of U.S. troops and weapons from parts of Europe. But the U.S. and its allies said those are non-starters intentionally designed by Moscow to distract and divide. They insist any Russian military intervention in Ukraine will prompt "massive consequences" that will dramatically disrupt Russia's economy even if they have global ripple effects.
In a bid to forestall efforts by Russia to sow discord in the West, the Biden administration has stressed neither Ukraine nor Europe more broadly will be excluded from any discussion of Ukraine's or Europe's security.
Biden administration officials allow neither topic can be entirely ignored when senior American and Russian diplomats sit down today in Geneva ahead of larger, more inclusive meetings in Brussels and Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday that will explore those issues in perhaps more depth.
Still, the mantras "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine" and "nothing about Europe without Europe" have become almost cliche in Washington in recent weeks, and senior U.S. officials have said they expect Russia to lie about the content of today's meeting to try to stoke divisions.