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In high-stakes meeting, Russia tells U.S. it isn't planning to invade Ukraine

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (left) and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday. The U.S., Russia and other European countries are holding a series of talks this week in an attempt to reduce tensions over Ukraine. Russia has some 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border.
Denis Balibouse
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AP
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (left) and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday. The U.S., Russia and other European countries are holding a series of talks this week in an attempt to reduce tensions over Ukraine. Russia has some 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border.

Top U.S. and Russian diplomats said they had constructive talks Monday in Geneva, but they did not achieve a breakthrough in their attempt to defuse tensions regarding the Russian troop buildup on the Ukraine-Russia border.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov emerged from the nearly eight hours of talks and declared, "There are no plans or intentions to attack Ukraine." He went on to say, "There is no reason to fear some kind of escalatory scenario."

But the Russian troops remain in place, and Ukraine and its supporters describe them as a serious threat.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said in a separate briefing that "0ne country cannot change the borders of another's by force."

She also stressed that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. would step up financial and trade sanctions and would increase military assistance to Ukraine.

Both sides presented proposals, and further talks could follow soon, said Sherman, who described Monday's meeting as a discussion, not a negotiation.

The most urgent topic in a series of meetings this week is the roughly 100,000 troops whom Russia has placed near Ukraine. But Russia has raised other issues such as NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe over the past two decades.

Ryabkov reiterated Russia's demand that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia never be allowed to join NATO, but he acknowledged there was no progress Monday on this issue.

"Ukraine and Georgia will never, ever become members of NATO," he said. "We are fed up with loose talk, half-promises or loose interpretation of what happened in negotiations behind closed doors. We do not trust the other side. We need ironclad, legally binding guarantees."

Sherman countered by saying that NATO "will not allow anyone to slam close NATO's open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance."

NATO said back in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia could seek membership. But in practical terms, there's no prospect either country will join the alliance in the near future.

A member of Ukraine's military walks in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels, in the Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine on Friday. President Biden has warned Russia's Vladimir Putin that the U.S. could impose new sanctions against Russia if it takes further military action against Ukraine.
Andriy Dubchak / AP
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AP
A member of Ukraine's military walks in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Friday. President Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. could impose new sanctions against Russia if it takes further military action against Ukraine.

As part of this week's diplomatic effort, the U.S. and its NATO partners also plan to meet Russian officials on Wednesday in Brussels, the headquarters of the military alliance. And the U.S. will join the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Vienna for talks with Russia on Thursday.

U.S. says it will coordinate with Ukraine and Europe

While the Russians prefer direct talks with the U.S., the Biden administration says it will not work out any deals on Ukraine, or on any other issue involving European security, without the Europeans at the table.

"We've made very clear to Russia that there's going to be nothing about Europe, without Europe," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday.

In addition, he said, "Any progress that we're going to make is going to have to happen on a reciprocal basis. If the United States and Europe are taking steps to address some of Russia's concerns, Russia will have to do the same thing."

Russia began moving large numbers of troops and heavy weaponry toward its western border with Ukraine last fall. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies that Russia is planning to invade.

However, Russia has had troops in Ukraine since seizing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. In addition, Russia is also supporting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Putin wrote a long essay last summer arguing that Russia and Ukraine are essentially one country. While that has been true at times in their 1,000-year history, Ukraine has its own culture, language and identity and has been independent for more than 30 years, since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

More Ukrainians tilt toward the West

Putin does not want to see Ukraine becoming more integrated with Western Europe. Yet Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine, as well as the current military buildup, has led many Ukrainians to support closer ties with the West.

Ukrainians, meanwhile, feel that Russia's pressure campaign could also include cyberattacks, which Russia has carried out in recent years.

In 2015, the Russian hacking group Sandworm took down Ukraine's power grid. Two years later, Russian hackers hit websites, banks, newspapers and electric companies with a malware called Petya.

Nolan Peterson, a former U.S. Air Force special operations pilot, who has been living in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, since 2014, said Ukrainian troops are very aware of Russia's technical capabilities. This has made the Ukrainians extremely cautious in how they operate.

"You don't shine a flashlight on a bright night. In the same way, the Ukrainians don't want to use military radios or cellphones on the front lines," Peterson said.

In some cases, Ukrainians have returned to analog times, using old technology, or no technology at all. Peterson said this can mean making calls on rotary-dial phones or using people to run messages by hand.

Russia considers cyberattacks part of its hybrid warfare strategy, which is designed to weaken the morale of Ukraine's military as well as its civilian population.

"I've had a lot of Ukrainian soldiers tell me that before major attacks, they will receive cellphone text messages or their families will receive emails from the Russian side, threatening them, telling them that they're all going to die and things like that, or telling them that they've been betrayed by their civilian leadership," Peterson said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.