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Russia digs in on Ukraine never joining NATO, on a day of talks with the U.S.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (left) and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (right) pose for pictures as they attend security talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine, at the U.S. permanent Mission, in Geneva on Jan. 10.
Denis Balibouse
/
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (left) and Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (right) pose for pictures as they attend security talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine, at the U.S. permanent Mission, in Geneva on Jan. 10.

The idea that Ukraine, Russia's neighbor, might someday join NATO "is one of the areas where we have the greatest difference of views with the U.S.," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday, after an hours-long discussion with his U.S. counterpart, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Sherman and Ryabkov posed together at the start of the session, convened as an effort to ease tensions aroused by Russia's positioning of some 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. But they both said the discussions achieved no breakthroughs — and after the talks were over, Sherman and Ryabkov each held separate briefings with the media rather than appear together.

"We had a frank and forthright discussion over the course of nearly eight hours," Sherman told reporters who were on a conference call.

"For us, it's absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never, ever becomes a member of NATO," Ryabkov said at a news conference after the day-long meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

But Sherman said NATO's open-door policy is one of the alliance's key strengths, and she said the U.S. "will not allow anyone" to slam that door shut. She also said the U.S. won't allow Russia to dictate how it cooperates with other sovereign states.

"We will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine" being involved, Sherman said, adding that the same goes for the European Union. "As we say to our allies and partners: Nothing about you, without you," Sherman said.

Of the Russian side, Ryabkov said the country is "fed up" with what he called loose talk and half promises.

"We do not trust the other side," he stated. "We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees — not assurances, not safeguards — guarantees with all the words" spelling out with certainty that Ukraine shall never become a member of NATO. He also said Russia has no plans to attack Ukraine.

"It's a matter of Russia's national security," he said.

Sherman reiterated Secretary of State Antony Blinken's statement, that Russia has a choice to make between de-escalating or facing deterrents, such as sanctions.

"It's really a very stark choice and one that I suspect only Mr. Putin, President Putin, can decide," Sherman said. "And we certainly urged Russia to de-escalate, to create an environment that was conducive to the diplomatic track. But we will see."

Russia does not see a nation's ability to join a military alliance as an absolute, Ryabkov said, adding that in his country's view, that freedom should be both limited and qualified.

"The situation now is so dangerous," the Russian diplomat said, as he urged a speedy resolution to the issue.

Sherman said the U.S. is open to meeting again soon. She also said the U.S. raised "preliminary ideas" about a range of issues from the placement of some missile systems in Europe to a plan to set reciprocal limits on the scope of military exercises, and to ensure transparency about those exercises.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.