U.S., Russia begin tense talks amid stark disagreements over Ukraine

It is one of the most significant crises with Russia since the end of the Cold War: 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border that the U.S. says could invade within weeks. Meanwhile, American and Russian diplomats have kicked off intense talks. Debra Cagan, a former American diplomat, and Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, join Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is one of the most significant crises with Russia since the end of the Cold War, 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border that the U.S. says could invade within weeks.

    Today, in Geneva, senior American and Russian diplomats met, kicking off a week of intense diplomacy.

    Nick Schifrin reports

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The photo-op was tense and silent. U.S. and Russian negotiators met for eight hours of bilateral talks that Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described as a possible basis for agreement.

  • Sergei Ryabkov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister (through translator):

    A professional, practical conversation by itself puts us in an optimistic mood, of course. But, by all means, the main questions remain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Speaking to reporters by phone, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman called it a frank and forthright preliminary dialogue.

    Wendy Sherman, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State: 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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The crisis caused by 100,000 Russian troops deployed to Ukraine's borders. The U.S. warns Russia has plans to mobilize twice that number and possibly invade.

    But what the U.S. raised today, mutual limits on Eastern European exercises like these in Poland and on missile deployments by reviving the defunct Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, or defunct intermediate nuclear forces treaty, or INF, that banned an entire class of nuclear weapons.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    Even on things that are not Russian priorities, we had useful discussions and exchanges today that will help inform our way forward.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Russia's public priorities expand much further. In December, it released demands, including roll back all NATO forces and weapons in Europe to 1997, and no further enlargement of NATO, including Ukraine.

    That would rewrite decades of U.S. and NATO policy and the map. In 1949, NATO's Eastern border was Italy. By 1997, it had added four more countries, for a total of 16. Since then, in five rounds of expansion, it's grown to 30 countries, including those on Russia's border. In 2008, NATO said Ukraine and Georgia would become future members.

    The Biden administration says it refuses to negotiate NATO expansion or the deployment of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, which Ryabkov today said was still Russia's priorities.

  • Sergei Ryabkov:

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

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But in Kiev this weekend, Ukrainians who look West urged the U.S. to stand up to Putin. It's been eight years since Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine. And, still, this weekend, Ukrainian soldiers fought Russian-backed separatists.

    Kiev insists that Moscow cannot be allowed to block its NATO membership, as Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said today in Brussels.

  • Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister:

    We have inherent sovereign right to choose our own security arrangements, including treaties and alliances. What Russia is doing is tries to impose its agenda, instead of returning to the negotiation table.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, did today's talks create a diplomatic pathway to avoid war in Ukraine?

    For that, we get to views.

    Debra Cagan had a 30-year career as an American diplomat, where she focused on arms control and NATO. And Dmitri Trenin joins us from Moscow, where he directs the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour" to both of you.

    Dmitri Trenin, let me start with you.

    There are Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. There are Russian demands that the U.S. had to respond to today. Do today's talks create a pathway for a diplomatic solution?

  • Dmitri Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Center:

    Well, it's too early to tell.

    I think that, as Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov said, they will assess the results of the talks of today and, in fact, yesterday, also the talks that are scheduled for the 12th of January with NATO and, to some extent, what happens the following day, the next day in Vienna at the OSCE.

    And then they will come to a decision whether a new round of talks is possible, is promising, or whether that's it. So, I think we are at an inflection point in — not only U.S.-Russian relations, but more broadly in Russian Western relations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Debra Cagan, do you believe we are at an inflection point, and the outcome wasn't decided today, but, in fact, will only be decided after a week's worth of diplomatic meetings?

  • Debra Cagan, Former U.S. Diplomat:

    I don't even think it will be decided after a week's worth of diplomatic meeting. And I think that inflection point has been going on for quite a long period of time.

    It is not just right this second. So, I think that a lot of talking has to be had. And there has been no evidence of any Russian de-escalation to this point, which I think should be a precursor of moving forward on any of the other diplomatic solutions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Dmitri Trenin, let's go to what the U.S. administration has proposed.

    In response to a series of requests, many of which are about NATO and Ukraine, the U.S. administration is focused on mutual concessions on arms control, on revisiting the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and on restricting exercises in Eastern Europe.

    Will that be enough?

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    I think the short answer is no.

    I think that the issue of INF forces in Europe is certainly something that Russia would want to address and resolve. I think that Russia is also interested in caps on troops in its vicinity, on exercises by NATO forces.

    But most important issues for Russia were membership, or, rather, non-membership of Ukraine in NATO, and the nonexpansion of military infrastructure of NATO, no-strike weapons that can reach Russia in Europe, including in Ukraine.

    And he also mentioned a rollback of NATO's infrastructure to where it was back in 1997. So he called those three elements core elements, key elements of the Russian position, and unless those were addressed in a manner that would be found acceptable by the Russians, other things would not be pursued.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Debra Cagan, many of those proposals are dead on arrival for the administration.

    So, do you believe it will be enough for this administration to propose things like arms control and exercises to respond to and try and defuse this crisis?

  • Debra Cagan:

    I think it's great to put those things out there. But it depends on how adamant, as Dmitri said, the Russians are on this.

    If they're going to continue to insist that NATO has to pull back to pre-1997 borders, that's palpably ridiculous. That's not going to happen, because Washington and the rest of NATO are never going to treat, for example, Berlin and Paris and London better than you treat Warsaw and Vilnius and Bucharest.

    And that's what the Russians are asking for. And I think that is an absolute nonstarter. And I think Deputy Secretary Sherman was very, very clear on that today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dmitri Trenin, Debra Cagan is not the only one who calls these ideas ridiculous or nonstarters.

    Do you believe that they are designed to be rejected and become the prelude either for war or some kind of permanent Russian presence on Ukraine's support?

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    Well, in my judgment, the third condition that the Russians are putting forth, i.e., the rollback of NATO's military installations that have been built in the territories of the new NATO states, that this is rather less important for Russia than the two other issues raised by Mr. Ryabkov.

    So, that — this could be an area where Russia potentially could give, should it see progress on the truly important issues, nonexpansion of NATO and nonexpansion of NATO's infrastructure beyond where it is today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Debra Cagan, again, the U.S. and NATO are not willing to provide any kind of solid assurance to Russia that NATO won't expand.

    So do you fear that these Russian demands are an excuse to be denied, an excuse to go to war?

  • Debra Cagan:

    I wouldn't say that it's an excuse to go to war do.

    I do think the Russians know that these are going to be denied. I think the Russians try to split some of the older members of NATO from some of the newer members of NATO. And that's to be expected. But I don't think that this is — I don't think the Russians need an excuse to further invade Ukraine.

    And so I think that might be a misnomer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dmitri Trenin, just quickly, in about 30 seconds that we have left, the proposal there that Debra Cagan lays out would take some time to actually negotiate.

    Does Moscow have that kind of patience during this crisis?

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    Well, I think Moscow insists on moving ahead swiftly.

    But the important thing is that Moscow's agenda needs to be at the core of the negotiations. And that, I think, is non-negotiable for the Russian side. Unless those issues are addressed, other things will probably not get the attention that they may deserve.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Debra Cagan, quickly, just in 30 seconds, do you see that at the core of the agenda in these talks?

  • Debra Cagan:

    I see that's part of what Moscow is hoping to get.

    But I just want to point out one quick factor. There's about 60,000 U.S. forces in all of Europe, and only about 6,000 of those are deployed east of Berlin, for example. And of those, about 4,000 are in Poland.

    So if you want to talk about exercises, NATO doesn't do 100,000-person exercises. They don't. They haven't. They're not going to do it in the future. And so it's sometimes ridiculous to say, we have 100,000 troops here, and it's just an exercise.

    And so I just want to point out that I think this shows how ridiculous some of the Russian positions are on this, because the numbers just don't match up at all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Debra Cagan, Dmitri Trenin, thank you very much to you both.

  • Dmitri Trenin:

    You're welcome.

  • Debra Cagan:

    Thank you.

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