News Analysis: ‘Gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.’ Blinken, ahead of talks, warns Russia against invasion

WASHINGTON —

The U.S. and Russia open high-stake talks on the fate of Ukraine on Monday, but prospects for a resolution — or any agreement — are dim, diplomats say.

Moscow and Washington are worlds apart on whether Ukraine should be embraced by the West or cast its lot with Vladimir Putin‘s Russia. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has had to struggle to build unity among America’s allies on how to defend Kyiv from an increasingly aggressive Russia.

“It’s very hard to make actual progress” with Russia “in an atmosphere of escalation and threat with a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head,” Blinken said ahead of the talks.

Russia, which invaded a part of Ukraine nearly eight years ago, has amassed some 100,000 troops along the border in recent weeks and spewed a campaign of invective, accusing Ukraine and the NATO alliance of posing a looming threat.

After a couple of telephone conversations between Presidents Biden and Putin, and dozens of other lower-level consults, the two governments agreed to a meeting Monday in Geneva of the Strategic Stability Dialogue, a U.S.-Russia working group established last year to focus on arms control, followed by meetings the rest of the week involving NATO and other larger multilateral organizations. The Deputy Secretary of States Wendy Sherman is leading the U.S. delegation.

Biden, Blinken and NATO officials have issued dire warnings to Russia if it were to follow through with another invasion of Ukraine. According to Western officials, most punishment would be economic sanctions against Moscow, Putin, and Russian oligarchs. However, the numerous sanctions that have been in place so far have not had an effect on Putin’s behavior.

Most officials are ruling out military action beyond continuing to arm Ukraine forces and, possibly, repositioning additional NATO troops on the eastern flank of NATO territory that includes countries such as Poland.

” A diplomatic solution is still possible, and preferable,” Blinken stated. “If Russia chooses it.”

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Ukraine has symbolism for both the U.S. and Russia that extends past its real-life role. Putin sees it as a part of the Soviet Union’s lost power, which he longs to restore. In Washington, Ukraine came to represent the corruption of the Trump administration after then-President Trump attempted to secure political favors from President Volodymyr Zelensky, actions that led to Trump’s first impeachment. The bigger issue is how Russia and other U.S.-allied Europe can coexist. Many European countries, including those that were once part of the Soviet bloc, are now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization along with Canada and the United States.

NATO expansion into the part of the world he considers Russia’s domain infuriates Putin.

U.S. Diplomats are also concerned about Russia’s unity. While major powers like Germany and France have condemned Moscow’s aggression, they are still more dependent on Russia for their energy and trade needs than the U.S. They might be more inclined to avoid taking harsh actions against Putin. The U.S. claims it has provided $2.5 billion worth of “defensive” military equipment for Ukraine in the past seven years. It would increase that amount if Russia continues its aggressive posture.

“President Biden has told President Putin, should Russia further invade Ukraine, we will provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians above and beyond that which we already are in the process of providing,” a senior State Department official said in a briefing of reporters conducted on condition of anonymity.

William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who became a star witness in Trump’s first impeachment hearings, is among several officials and experts who advocate ramping up sanctions against Moscow now rather than waiting for an invasion.

“If you wait until [Putin] moves, you are responding, not deterring,” he said.

U.S. Officials from the U.S. administration suggested that they may be able find common ground with Russia regarding broader arms control and missile deployments. Both the U.S. as well as Russia have demands that are not met by the other.

Putin wants a pledge that NATO will not expand further. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated Friday that countries that want to join the 30-nation alliance will be welcome to apply. And for Washington, Russian deescalation is essential.

The upcoming talks are a good start, Taylor stated, but nothing is going to be serious as long as Russia continues to mount troops at the border of Ukraine.

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