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U.S., Russia still poles apart after Ukraine talks in Geneva

Russia and the United States gave no sign that they had narrowed their differences on Ukraine and wider European security in talks in Geneva on Monday, as Moscow repeated demands that Washington says it cannot accept.

Session begins a flurry of diplomatic talks this week, with Russian troops amassed near Ukraine border

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov are seen before Monday's security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland. (Denise Balibouse/Reuters)

Russia and the United States gave no sign that they had narrowed their differences on Ukraine and wider European security in talks in Geneva on Monday, as Moscow repeated demands that Washington says it cannot accept.

Russia has massed troops near Ukraine's border while demanding that the U.S.-led NATO alliance rule out admitting the former Soviet state or expanding further into what Moscow sees as its backyard.

"Unfortunately, we have a great disparity in our principled approaches to this. The U.S. and Russia in some ways have opposite views on what needs to be done," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said: "We were firm … in pushing back on security proposals that are simply non-starters to the United States."

Washington and Kyiv say the 100,000 Russian troops moved to striking distance could be preparing a new invasion eight years after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

Russia denies any such plans and says it is responding to what it calls aggressive behaviour from NATO and Ukraine, which has tilted toward the West and aspires to join the alliance.

WATCH | Recap of the most recent phone discussion between Biden, Putin:

Biden urges Putin to de-escalate border crisis with Ukraine

5 months ago
Duration 2:02
U.S. President Joe Biden warned Vladimir Putin against further incursions into Ukraine during a phone call requested by the Russian president.

Ryabkov repeated a set of sweeping demands including a ban on further NATO expansion and an end to the alliance's activity in the central and eastern European countries that joined it after 1997.

He said it was absolutely "mandatory" for Russia to ensure that Ukraine never becomes a NATO member.

In response, Sherman said the U.S. would "not allow anyone to slam closed NATO's open-door policy," which she called central to the NATO alliance.

"We will not forgo bilateral co-operation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States," Sherman said. "And we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, or about NATO without NATO."

NATO talks with Russia later this week

As Ukraine is not a NATO member, it could not count on alliance members to defend it.

But U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and European allies would impose tough sanctions if Russia chose to invade Ukraine. Putin has said new sanctions could lead to a "complete breakdown in ties."

Last month, Russia presented sweeping demands, including a ban on further NATO expansion and an end to the alliance's activity in central and eastern European countries that joined it after 1997.

The United States and NATO say large parts of the Russian proposals are non-starters.

Before Monday's meeting, Ryabkov told RIA news agency Russia would not accept U.S. attempts to limit the agenda to discussion of military exercises and missile deployments — the topics outlined by the Biden administration as areas it is willing to broach.

Russian soldiers take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region of southern Russia on Dec. 22, 2021. (The Associated Press)

Russia wants flexibility

"We need legal guarantees of the non-expansion of NATO and the elimination of everything that the alliance has created since 1997," Ryabkov said.

Russia had tried to show flexibility for the past 30 years, he said, noting it was time for the other side to be flexible.

"If they are unable to do this, they will face a worsening situation in their own security."

The two countries are also at odds over Russia's deployment of troops in Kazakhstan, its support for Belarus in a migrant crisis on the European Union's border, and what Washington sees as Russia's use of its gas supplies to Europe to gain political leverage over its neighbours.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will meet the Russian team on Wednesday in Brussels, said Russia and the West could find a pathway to avoid conflict.

"What we are hoping for is that we can agree on a way forward, that we can agree on a series of meetings, that we can agree on a process," Stoltenberg said.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna, who appeared alongside Stoltenberg, said Russia should not set conditions while its tanks remained near the Ukrainian border.

Russia has scorned Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy as a viable negotiating partner, but the United States and other Western governments have said they are fully committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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