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US, Russia kick off ‘difficult’ discussions on Ukraine crisis

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Ukrainian military walk through a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near to Avdiivka, Donetsk, southeastern Ukraine, on Saturday. AFP

US, Russia kick off ‘difficult’ discussions on Ukraine crisis

A top Russian official said he had a “difficult” conversation with his US counterpart on January 9 as preliminary talks on Ukraine got under way amid fears of a Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.

“The conversation was difficult, it couldn’t have been easy,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during a working dinner in Geneva.

Ryabkov described his talks with Sherman, which lasted a little over two hours, as “business-like”. A full day of talks was scheduled for January 10.

“I think that tomorrow we won’t waste any time,” Ryabkov said, adding that he never loses optimism.

The US and Russia had set firm lines ahead of the high-stakes security talks on Ukraine, with Washington warning of the risk of confrontation and Moscow ruling out concessions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Russia to steer away from aggression and choose the diplomatic path as the Kremlin, facing strong pressure to pull back troops from the Ukrainian border, demands wide-ranging new security arrangements with the West.

For her part, during her initial talks with Ryabkov 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,” the State Department said in a statement.

Ahead of the talks, Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that Moscow was “disappointed” with signals coming from Washington and from Brussels, where NATO and the EU are based.

The talks with the US kick off a week of diplomacy during which Russian officials will meet representatives of NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as Washington tries to assure European allies they will not be sidelined.

“There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences,” Blinken told US news channel CNN on January 9.

“The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We are about to test the proposition about which path President [Vladimir] Putin is prepared to take.”

Gun to Ukraine’s head

Since late last year, Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops at the Ukrainian border and demanded guarantees that NATO will not expand further eastward.

The Kremlin is insisting NATO must never grant membership to ex-Soviet Ukraine, which is pushing to join.

The US says many of Moscow’s proposals are non-starters.

Blinken warned that any positive outcome from the talks would rely in part on Russia’s willingness to stand down from its aggressive posture, which he likened to “an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head”.

“If we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation,” US President Joe Biden’s top diplomat said.

Russia could otherwise face severe economic and financial consequences, “as well as NATO almost certainly having to reinforce its position near Russia as well as continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine”, he told ABC television on January 9.

Putin met Biden in Geneva in June and agreed on regular “stability” talks between Sherman and Ryabkov. Previous rounds were held in the Swiss city in July and September.

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