US, Russia face deep differences ahead of talks with Ukraine

After difficult talks between Presidents Biden and Vladimir Putin over the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, both sides insist they hope that a path to easing tensions may open during the talks diplomatic missions scheduled for January.

But less than two weeks before the meeting of senior American and Russian officials in Geneva, the chasm is deep and the prospect of finding a way out of the crisis is not without complications.

Biden told reporters on Friday that he informed Putin in a telephone interview a day earlier that the upcoming talks could only work if the Russian leader “defuses, not escalates, the situation” in the days to come. . The US president has said he is also seeking to convey to Putin that the United States and its allies are prepared to strike Russia with punitive sanctions if the Russians invade Ukraine further.

“I have made it clear to President Putin that if he takes any further steps in Ukraine, we will have severe sanctions,” Biden said. “We will increase our presence in Europe with NATO allies.”

Meanwhile, Biden’s national security team focused on Friday preparations for talks in Geneva, scheduled for Jan. 9-10, to discuss Russia’s regrouping of some 100,000 troops on its border with the Ukraine.

The Geneva talks, which are to be led on the US side by senior State Department officials, are expected to be followed by Russia-NATO Council talks and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. .

Biden is due to speak by phone on Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The two leaders plan to review preparations for upcoming diplomatic engagements, according to the White House.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefed Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the Biden-Putin appeal on Friday and discussed the preparations for upcoming talks.

“The next two weeks are going to be difficult,” said Daniel Fried, former US Ambassador to Poland who was a senior Eastern European advisor to Presidents Obama, George W. Bush. and Clinton. “The Biden administration did a fairly credible job of describing, framing the negotiations. But the most difficult test is yet to come, as Putin will continue to engage in threats and collapsing maneuvers to see how determined we are. ”

As Biden reiterated his readiness to impose sanctions that would ripple across Russia, Kremlin officials stepped up warning Biden to make a “colossal mistake” that could have huge ramifications for a relationship. American-Russian already tense.

A senior Putin official confirmed on Friday that Russia is maintaining its demands for written security guarantees. Moscow wants codified that any future NATO expansion must exclude Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and demands that the alliance withdraw offensive weapons from countries in the Russian neighborhood.

“We will not allow our initiatives to be drowned in endless discussions,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the state news agency RIA-Novosti. “If no constructive response arrives within a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive course, Russia will have to take all necessary measures to maintain a strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.”

The Biden administration and NATO allies have made it clear that the Russian demands are unfounded.

The seemingly unrealistic rhetoric has made some in Washington question how effective the talks can be.

In the wake of the Biden-Putin call, a group of 24 former U.S. national security officials and Russian experts – a group that includes several officials who served in the Obama administrations, George W. Bush and Clinton – issued a statement calling on Biden to immediately, and publicly, outline the sanctions Russia would face if Putin went ahead with military action.

Signatories to the declaration included several former U.S. ambassadors, including Fried, Russian envoys Michael McFaul and Alexander Vershbow, and Ukrainian envoys Steven Pifer and John Herbst.

“We believe that the United States should, in close consultation with its NATO allies and with Ukraine, take immediate steps to change the Kremlin’s cost-benefit calculations before the Russian leadership opts for a new military escalation, ”the group wrote. “Such a response would include a package of major and painful sanctions that would be applied immediately if Russia attacks Ukraine. Ideally, the outline of these sanctions would be communicated now to Moscow, so that the Kremlin has a clear understanding of the scale of the economic blow it will face. “

The Russians, for their part, continue to argue that they face an existential threat with Ukraine.

Lavrov noted on Friday an increase in arms deliveries to Ukraine and the growing number and scope of joint military exercises conducted by Western powers with Ukraine, saying “the Kiev regime naturally sees this support as a card white for the use of force “. He added that Russia will protect its citizens living in eastern Ukraine.

“As for the inhabitants of Donbass, where hundreds of thousands of our citizens live, Russia will take all necessary measures to protect them,” he said. “An adequate response will be given to any possible military provocation by Kiev against the Donbass.”

Russia is supporting a separatist rebellion in the eastern Donbass region that has killed more than 14,000 people since it began in 2014. In recent years, Russia has offered citizenship to those living in the region.

Simon Miles, diplomatic and international historian of the Cold War at Duke University, said it would be a mistake for the White House to let “Russia unilaterally set the pace for what is about to unfold. “.

“Anything the United States can do to keep the Russians on their feet, instead of letting the Kremlin set the agenda, will be important in securing a favorable resolution,” Miles said.

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