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Entering Talks In Geneva, U.S. Hopes For A Ukraine Breakthrough


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow, Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet in Geneva with his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. It's hoped the multilateral talks will produce a diplomatic breakthrough on the crisis in Ukraine. Analysts say that without that, the U.S. and its Western allies have few other options for dealing with Russia's aggression there.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the days leading up to this latest round of talks in Geneva, the State Department did not sound optimistic about a breakthrough. Here's State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.

JEN PSAKI: So this is an opportunity to have a discussion. Yes, certainly we are - have expressed our concern about what's been happening on the ground over the last couple of days. But that doesn't mean that we should not take an opportunity to have a diplomatic discussion.

NORTHAM: There's good reason to be skeptical, says Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She says Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is a highly skilled diplomat but he's only an intermediary, not a decision maker.

FIONA HILL: So at the best, this is a process. At the worst, it may be that the Russians are simply playing for time here with all these negotiations. And they're also just trying to use this as a way of getting information about how far we're likely to go and what we're likely to do.

NORTHAM: Hill says the Obama administration has tried to provide support for Ukraine. It signed a $1 billion loan guarantee, and Vice President Joe Biden will visit Kiev next week in a show of support for the country's transitional government. Meanwhile, some 40,000 Russian troops are amassed along the border with Ukraine and the West accuses President Vladimir Putin of supporting pro-Russian militants, stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine.

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the West is seen as talking loud and doing little. But he says in reality options are limited.

ANDERS ASLUND: I essentially see that we have a choice: Are we going to stop Putin with sanctions or with war. Because if we don't stop Putin, there will be war. It's much better to do what we can with sanctions but in order to accomplish that, the sanctions have to be serious.

NORTHAM: Sanctions so far include travel bans and freezing assets for some Russian officials and restrictions on a bank. Aslund says even though they're limited, the sanctions have had an impact. Economic growth in Russia fell two percent in March and the capital outflow from Russia over the past few months has been massive. Aslund says the Russian economy is quite vulnerable and will feel the sting of more severe sanctions.

ASLUND: If the Russian state banks are banned and sanctioned, it would severely hit Russian economy. And also, if various kinds of technologies - for example, for oil and gas development - are being blocked, then it will be quite difficult for the Kremlin because oil and gas account for no less than three-quarters of Russian exports.

NORTHAM: The Obama administration says it's actively evaluating another round of sanctions. But it hasn't been able to rally full support of the European nations, which have stronger business ties with Russia than the U.S. Analysts say none of this is lost on the fledgling Ukrainian government, which is looking for other ways to deal with Russia.

It offered concessions to Moscow, launched its own military operation to uproot pro-Russian militants from installations in the east. Kiev also appealed for U.N. peacekeepers and military help from NATO. The alliance says it's strengthening its military footprint in the region. The Obama administration stresses it's not considering lethal assistance to Ukraine. But it has sent 300,000 ready-to-eat military food rations.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.