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Hopes fade ahead of Ukraine talks

Russia and the United States have doubled down on their positions on the eve of talks in Geneva to address spiralling tensions over Ukraine.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday again urged Moscow to refrain from any confrontation or aggression in the region, where thousands of Russian troops have massed near the Ukrainian border.

In an interview with the US broadcaster CNN, Blinken said it was difficult to make progress while “talking in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head.”

“So if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation,” Blinken said.

Monday’s talks in Geneva come amid fears in the West of a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

A meeting of the NATO-Russia Council is also scheduled for Wednesday in Brussels, the first such meeting in two and a half years. This is to be followed on Thursday by talks in Vienna within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Echoing comments made by a White House representative the day before, Blinken said no breakthroughs were expected in the coming week.

“We’re going to be able to put things on the table. The Russians will do the same, both directly with us, at NATO, at the OSCE, and we’ll see if there’s grounds for for moving forward,” he said.

Blinken told CNN that any progress will “have to happen on a reciprocal basis.” From Washington’s point of view, neither a withdrawal of US troops from Eastern Europe nor a halt to NATO expansion in the region is up for negotiation, he added.

Earlier on Sunday, Russia reiterated its calls for binding security agreements with NATO ahead of the talks.

The country needed “guarantees” from the alliance that it won’t expand further, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency on Sunday.

Moscow’s expectations regarding Monday’s talks were “realistic,” said Ryabkov, who is leading the Russian delegation. “Based on the signals we’ve heard from Washington and Brussels in recent days, I think it would be naive to assume progress – let alone rapid progress.”

Ryabkov also stressed that Russia wasn’t planning to discuss the unrest in Kazakhstan with the US delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Representatives of Russia have already arrived in Geneva ahead of the negotiations.

The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow released a video on Sunday afternoon showing a plane of the delegation at the airport of the Swiss city. Initial talks are already planned for the evening.

Ahead of the meeting, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc would continue to be involved in the Ukraine discussions. “Nothing could be decided about us, without us,” Borrell said.

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