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No breakthrough, but US, Russia say talks useful amid Ukraine crisis

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The top diplomats of Russia and the United States have failed to make any breakthroughs in another round of Ukraine talks in Geneva, though the discussions reportedly helped clear a path to understanding each other’s concerns amid fears Russia will invade despite Western warnings of severe consequences.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met for about 90 minutes on January 21 as they try to avert a possible war in Europe amid Moscow’s demands for concessions from NATO over its ties with the former Soviet republic.

Both diplomats said the talks were frank and gave hope for more diplomacy on the Ukraine crisis.

“We didn’t expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clear path in terms of understanding each other’s concerns and each other’s positions,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.

In his comments immediately following the meeting, Lavrov said he hopes “emotions will decrease” after the talks, which follow a flurry of diplomacy in recent days that has failed to bridge deep divides.

Russia has amassed more than 125,000 troops in occupied Crimea and near Ukraine’s borders, raising alarm bells in Western capitals that Moscow is preparing further military action against Ukraine.

Moscow is backing separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since 2014, the same year it illegally annexed Crimea.

Russia has ramped up its belligerent rhetoric recently as it presses for a list of security guarantees. The demands include a promise from NATO never to admit Ukraine and for a significant retreat of the alliance from Eastern Europe. Moscow is also angered over Western military support to Ukraine.

On January 21, Russia’s Foreign Ministry published on its website answers to questions from journalists received at a press conference seven days earlier on Russian diplomacy last year.

One of the ministry’s answers noted that Russia is looking for “steps aimed at restoring the 1997 configuration of those countries who weren’t NATO members at that time and that includes both Bulgaria and Romania.”

Washington and its allies have said most of Russia’s demands are nonstarters.

Lavrov said that Blinken promised during the meeting to provide written responses to Russian demands on Ukraine and NATO next week, adding that Russia will better understand “whether we are on the right track” after Moscow receives the answers.

Blinken confirmed the United States would respond in writing and that he expects delegations from both sides to meet again after Moscow studies the responses.

“I believe we can carry forward work on developing understanding, but that’s contingent on Russia stopping its aggression toward Ukraine.,” Blinken said.

The West has repeated that it wants diplomacy, but with positions entrenched on both sides, a series of talks between Western and Russian officials in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna last week failed to yield any breakthroughs.

On January 20 in Berlin, Blinken met with top diplomats from Britain, France, and Germany to discuss the threat of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine and the “swift, severe response” it would provoke from the United States and its allies. Blinken met with Ukraine’s president and other top officials in Kyiv a day earlier.

Washington and its allies have repeatedly warned Russia that it would pay a “high price” of economic and political sanctions should it invade Ukraine.

In a speech in Australia, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Russia risks becoming embroiled in a “terrible quagmire” if it invades.

Putin “has not learned the lessons of history,” Truss said, urging the Russian president to “desist and step back from Ukraine before he makes a massive strategic mistake.”

In Bucharest, Romania labeled the Russian demand as “unacceptable” and said it cannot be part of any negotiation, while Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said his country “made its choice long ago by becoming a NATO member.”

“As such, we alone decide to organize the defense of our country in coordination with our partners,” he said.