By Anton Troianovski and David E. Sanger
NYTimes News Service
GENEVA -- Russian and American officials met for a preliminary dinner Sunday night to begin a high-stakes negotiation over threats to Ukraine and a widening gulf between Moscow and the West, but there was deep pessimism on both sides that a diplomatic solution was within reach.
Even before they sat down, the senior Russian official dispatched to the talks warned that the United States had a "lack of understanding" of the Kremlin's security demands, and the United States voiced doubts over whether Russia was "serious" about de-escalating the Ukraine crisis.
The comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov maintained the hard-line rhetoric that some analysts and Western officials see as a possible prelude to new Russian military action against Ukraine. He appeared to be trying to lower expectations for a pathway to an agreement just hours before he opened the session with a private dinner in a residential building on the Geneva lakefront with Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state. The two will meet again in Geneva on Monday, leading Russian and U.S. delegations in more formal negotiations.
In remarks reported by Russian news agencies, Ryabkov said he was intent on negotiating "dynamically, without pauses," to prevent the West from "putting the brakes on all this and burying it in endless discussions."
Ryabkov's comments came several hours before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, appearing on several Sunday morning television programs, said he thought there was room for negotiation in the talks taking place in the coming days in Geneva and two other European cities.
While he ruled out encroachments on Ukraine's territorial integrity and reductions in American troop levels, he opened the door to a possible revival of a treaty abandoned by the Trump administration and mutual limits on where troops could be deployed and exercises conducted.
The negotiations, Blinken insisted, are "not about making concessions" under the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, eight years after it annexed Crimea.
"It's about seeing whether, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides, all sides can do to reduce tensions," he said on CNN. "We've done that in the past."
Several times Sunday, Blinken raised the possibility of reviving the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the deployment, in Europe or in Russia, of medium-range nuclear missiles. Both the Obama and Trump administrations accused Moscow of violating the accord, and the United States left the treaty in 2019.
"There may be ground for renewing that," he said on ABC's "This Week."
And Blinken raised the idea of revising an agreement on the deployment of conventional forces in Europe that could keep military exercises far from borders -- and thus reduce the fear that an exercise could become the leaping-off point for an invasion. "Those are certainly things that can be revisited if -- if Russia is serious about doing it," he said.
The Russians were incensed this fall when the United States and allied NATO forces conducted exercises in the Black Sea, near the Ukrainian and Russian coasts.
Privately, American officials have little hope that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would be satisfied with agreements that restore the status quo of a few years ago. And their concern is that the Russians will emerge from the Geneva talks, and others this week in Brussels and Vienna, declaring that diplomacy has failed -- and that Putin will attempt to seize more of Eastern Ukraine, or carry out cyber or other attacks to cripple the government in Kyiv.
Blinken appeared intent on showing an openness to a range of diplomatic solutions while stressing that if Russia rejects that path, "massive consequences" would follow. They would go far beyond the penalties the United States and its allies imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent American sanctions for Russian election interference in 2016 and the Solar Winds cyberattacks on American companies and the federal government in 2020.
U.S. officials have detailed those consequences in recent days, describing the kind of financial, technology and military sanctions that would go into effect if Russia begins an invasion of parts or all of the country.
The State Department said that Monday it would take up "certain bilateral issues" with Russia "but will not discuss European security without our European partners and allies."
Russia is seeking what it calls "security guarantees" from the United States and the NATO alliance that would essentially grant the country the kind of sphere of influence it has not enjoyed for more than 30 years, including Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin has been backing up those demands by massing tens of thousands of troops and equipment near its border with Ukraine, signaling that it is prepared to use force if diplomacy fails.
While Blinken attempted to focus the discussion on missile basing and military exercises in the region, Ryabkov said that Russia's aims in the talks would go well beyond arms-control issues. Signals sent by American officials ahead of the talks, he said, "reflect a lack of understanding of what we need," according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
Ryabkov said that Russia would seek to revise the relationship with the West that was put in place with the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. That agreement was followed by countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence joining the Western alliance, and many in Moscow see it as having disregarded Russia's security interests in Europe.
"We need to assure the curtailing of the destructive NATO activities that have been taking place for decades and bring NATO back to positions that are essentially equivalent to what was the case in 1997," Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency. "But it is precisely on these issues that we hear least of all any readiness on the part of the American side and NATO to come to an agreement."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.