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The U.S. and Russia tackle growing tensions over Ukraine


The U.S. and Russia started a week of high-stakes diplomacy about Ukraine and European security today. Russia came to the talks in Geneva with a long list of complaints about the way it's been treated in the post-Cold War era. The U.S. says Russia's brought the problems on itself by massing troops on the border with Ukraine and threatening to invade once again. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov met for about seven hours in the Swiss city of Geneva. It seems to have been mostly an airing of grievances.


WENDY SHERMAN: Today was a discussion, a better understanding of each other and each other's priorities and concerns. It was not what you would call a negotiation.

KELEMEN: At his news conference, held at the same time as Sherman's conference call, Ryabkov said he spent a lot of time explaining why Russia cannot tolerate NATO's further expansion eastward.


SERGEI RYABKOV: For us, it's absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never ever becomes member of NATO.

KELEMEN: And on that, he says, there was no progress. Wendy Sherman says NATO has an open-door policy, and Russia can't shut that door.


SHERMAN: Ukraine gets to decide its foreign policy orientation. It gets to decide its future. NATO gets to decide the process for NATO membership and how one goes through that process.

KELEMEN: She says the Russians did tell her that they have no intention to invade Ukraine. But there are 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine's border, and the Russians still occupy Crimea and have proxies controlling territory in eastern Ukraine. Against that backdrop, Samuel Charap of the RAND Corporation says today's talks could have been worse.

SAMUEL CHARAP: The notes of intention of continuing the talks is better than if they both came out of that room saying, it's over. We're not talking anymore. There's no point.

KELEMEN: The U.S. says it did put some ideas on the table to increase transparency in missile deployments and military exercises. But for Russia, this is about much more, says Charap, who worked in President Obama's State Department.

CHARAP: You know, Russia created this crisis, and it's sort of Russia's agenda as a result.

KELEMEN: Russia also seems to be trying to set a short timeline, as deputy foreign minister Ryabkov suggested today.


RYABKOV: The situation now is so dangerous and so, I would say, precarious that we cannot afford any further delays in resolution of this very fundamental question.

KELEMEN: Why the rush? Well, Charap says it's costly to keep so many Russian troops on high alert at the border with Ukraine.

CHARAP: That combined with reality of muds of eastern Ukraine returning in the spring, making it harder to move armor across. The way I've been thinking about it is sort of March is the outer bound when this could - this escalation could continue. So they're going to have to make a decision one way or the other before then.

KELEMEN: But it will take more time than that to negotiate with Russia. That's why the U.S. and its partners are urging Moscow to de-escalate now. It's a message Russia will hear in more talks this week with NATO and with the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF AYDIO'S "DELTITNU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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