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U.S., Russian negotiators hold 'frank' security talks on Ukraine

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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday. Photo by Denis Balibouse/EPA-EFE/Pool
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday. Photo by Denis Balibouse/EPA-EFE/Pool

Jan. 10 (UPI) -- The United States and Russia engaged in "frank and forthright" negotiations over eight hours of security talks Monday in Switzerland but failed to notch any breakthroughs, negotiators said.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov described the first day of talks focusing on Moscow's buildup of military forces along its border with Ukraine as "helpful" but without real progress on a range of security issues.

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"We had useful discussion and exchanges today that will help inform our way forward," Sherman told reporters, adding that the Kremlin appears ready to negotiate on "things that are not Russian priorities."

"I don't consider the situation hopeless," Ryabkov said. "I think that the usefulness of the talks in Geneva is mainly in the fact that we were able for the first time to discuss the issues that were present previously sort of invisibly, they did exist, but kind of behind the scenes."

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The top U.S. concern at the talks is Ukraine, where Washington and its allies fear Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing a military move across the border. Russia, meanwhile, worries about Ukraine joining NATO, which it has said would pose a significant security threat.

Ukrainian troops are seen during a military exercise near Kiev, Ukraine, on December 18. Photo by Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE

Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops near Ukraine's eastern border, fueling concerns the Kremlin could be aiming to repeat its forced annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin last month laid out demands that NATO stop all membership plans, including with Ukraine, and roll back its military deployments near Russia's borders. He also demanded guarantees that the United States not set up any new military bases in non-NATO former Soviet states.

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NATO foreign ministers on Friday rejected the demand to halt its membership plans, declaring they "continue to stand with Ukraine and fully support its sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the principle that all countries have the right to decide on their own path and their alliances."

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Sherman made clear during the talks "that the diplomatic path provides the only durable solution to the security concerns of Russia and the United States."

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While stressing that Washington "is committed to diplomacy," Sherman told her Russian counterpart the United States "stands ready to impose significant economic and political costs, in close coordination with its allies and partners, should Russia escalate its aggressive actions against Ukraine," Price said.

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During the negotiations, Sherman was willing to discuss the status of "certain missile systems in Europe" as well as setting limits on the size and scope of military exercises, but would not entertain Moscow's demand to end NATO's "open door policy" on new members, the spokesman added.

Following the talks, Ryabkov reiterated earlier denials of invasion plans, but also warned it would be a mistake to disregard Russia's determination to protect what it defines as its security interests.

"Something that is absolutely important for us is categorically unacceptable for Americans," he said. "This is bad, since it shows that the American side underestimates the seriousness of what is going on. It's also bad as some other aspects of the vast dossier in the sphere of arms control, the strengthening of strategic stability and security in general, depend on the absence of progress on that track."

In the run-up to the talks, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pushed back against Russian claims that Ukraine has been the aggressor in the tense standoff.

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"The idea that Ukraine is the aggressor in this situation is absurd," he said in a statement Sunday. "It's Russia that invaded Ukraine nearly eight years ago. It's Russia whose military occupies part of Ukraine in Crimea. It's Russia that's taken aim repeatedly at Ukraine's democracy."

Blinken told ABC News Sunday he didn't expect any "breakthroughs" at Monday's talks.

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