GENEVA – A top Russian diplomat predicted “difficult” talks with the United States this week after attending a working dinner with U.S. officials in Geneva on Sunday as part of the kickoff to a string of meetings in three European cities this week, with ties at a low over Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and other Russian officials met for over two hours with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. delegation, and her team at the luxury residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament that overlooks Lake Geneva.
The dinner was a prelude to a broader discussion between the two teams at the U.S. mission in Geneva starting Monday — culminating a string of meetings both virtual and in person among U.S. officials, their Western allies, and Russian leaders in recent days and weeks as tensions over Russian pressure against Ukraine have grown.
“We plunged into the substance of the forthcoming issues, but the talks are going to be difficult," Ryabkov told reporters as he left the dinner meeting. "They cannot be easy. They will be business-like. I think we won’t waste our time tomorrow.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that during Sunday's dinner Sherman “stressed the United States’ commitment to the international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances," a reference to Ukraine and its aspirations of joining NATO.
Sherman “affirmed that the United States would welcome genuine progress through diplomacy,” Price said in a statement.
The talks are seen a first step toward rekindling dialogue as ties have worsened because Russia has deployed an estimated 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. Concerns have risen about a broader Russian military incursion in the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has laid out a list of demands, such as seeking guarantees that the NATO military alliance won't seek to expand any further eastward to countries like Ukraine or Georgia, which are former Soviet republics.
“The Russian side came here with a clear position that contains a number of elements that, to my mind, are understandable and have been so clearly formulated — including at a high level — that deviating from our approaches simply is not possible," Ryabkov said.
Asked whether Russia was ready for compromise, he said: “The Americans should get ready to reach a compromise."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC's "This Week” on Sunday he didn't expect any breakthroughs in talks with the Russians in Geneva or during conversations in Brussels, at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, and at the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe in Vienna later this week.
The United States and other Western allies have pledged “severe costs” to Russia if it moves against Ukraine.
“The question really now is whether President Putin will take the path of diplomacy and dialogue or seeks confrontation," Blinken said, suggesting that a Russian move deeper into Ukraine might run counter to Moscow's interests in the long run.
“If Russia commits renewed aggression against Ukraine, I think it’s a very fair prospect that NATO will reinforce its positions along its eastern flank, the countries that border Russia,” he told ABC.
Russia was coming into the talks seeking a clearer understanding of the U.S. position, and cited signals from Washington that some of the Russian proposals can be discussed, Ryabkov said earlier Sunday, according to state news agency Tass.
He laid out Russia’s three demands: no further NATO expansion, no missiles on Russia’s borders, and for NATO no longer to have military exercises, intelligence operations or infrastructure outside of its 1997 borders.
U.S. officials expressed openness Saturday 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 warned of hard economic sanctions in case of a Russian intervention, including direct sanctions on Russian entities and restrictions on products exported from the U.S. to Russia.
Ambassador Thomas Greminger, director of the Swiss government-supported Geneva Center for Security Policy who hosted Ryabkov for a conference in October, said the Geneva talks were "an opportunity to spell out mutual concerns, to spell out mutual expectations. But it would be way too early to expect any clarity, for instance, regarding Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of posturing," added Greminger, who is also a former head of the OSCE. "I think at the end, both Putin and (U.S. President Joe) Biden have absolutely no interest to push towards an escalation.”
Matthew Lee and Lynn Berry contributed to this report from Washington.