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With Russian troops at Ukraine's border, talks to avert a conflict end deadlocked

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After three frustrating days of talks between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said this is the U.S. conclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for an invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

MARTIN: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen and NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes have been following this week's diplomatic efforts, and they both join me now. Good morning.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Michele, let me start with you. We know that Russia has some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. That's what has prompted these urgent talks this week in the first place. What more are U.S. officials saying about this situation that becomes increasingly volatile? I mean, you heard what Jake Sullivan just said.

KELEMEN: Right. Well, Sullivan said it's not clear that Russians - that the Russians have decided on a military course of action. But, you know, U.S. officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been saying that no one should be surprised if Russia instigates some sort of incident in order to justify an invasion. It's part of Russia's playbook, they say. Now it seems the U.S. has some sort of specific information about that, and a congressional delegation is heading to Ukraine next week to share the latest U.S. intelligence assessment. And what's interesting, Rachel, is that, you know, U.S. officials are talking about all of this now at the end of a very long week of diplomacy. You had U.S.-Russia talks, NATO-Russia talks, a big meeting of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. And at the end of all of this, the U.S. is still worried about a potential provocation, and there are really no signs of easing tensions.

MARTIN: So what was it all for?

KELEMEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, Charles, have the Russians reacted to this statement from the White House national security adviser?

MAYNES: No, not specifically. But, of course, Russia has been saying that Ukraine, emboldened by support from NATO, is planning to retake by force these separatist territories that Russia has backed both politically and militarily in Ukraine's east, in the Donbas. Now, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has at least publicly said he wants more diplomacy, although it's true Ukraine has reinforced its troops in response to the recent Russian buildup. And Ukraine's government has accused Russia of trying to provoke this wider response amid a recent uptick in fighting there. But, you know, curiously, this morning, Ukrainian officials said a cyberattack took out key government websites like the foreign ministry. They're all offline now. And let's not forget, aside from this proxy war in the east of Ukraine, Russia also annexed Crimea in 2014. So, you know, Russia certainly has shown it's willing to take territory from Ukraine by force.

MARTIN: Let's talk about Russia has - what Russia has said it wants anyway, right? I mean, they have said the sticking points are they don't want Ukraine to be allowed to join NATO, and they want NATO to cut back military assets around Eastern Europe. Are either of those things likely to happen, Michele?

KELEMEN: Not on NATO membership. I mean, the alliance is keeping open its - wants to keep open the open-door policy, even if most experts agree that NATO - that Ukraine's membership in NATO is really unlikely anytime soon. But Secretary Blinken has said that there could be areas of negotiation on things like military exercises, missile deployments, but that it has to be reciprocal, and these things take time. Here's how he summed up the week of diplomacy in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTONY BLINKEN: They put down maximalist and non-starter demands in some cases. There are other issues that they put on the table that could be the basis for, you know, meaningful conversation and diplomacy. We've certainly put our concerns on the table. And now we're going to see if they're - if they really are serious about diplomacy and dialogue or whether this has been just a faint all along and their intention is otherwise.

KELEMEN: And Blinken says that the U.S. and its partners are ready with what he called massive sanctions if Russia chooses aggression over that path of diplomacy.

MARTIN: So, Charles, tell us more about the Russian position here. I mean, do they have any incentive to back down or at least draw down some troops from the Ukrainian border?

MAYNES: Yeah. Well, this morning, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave his annual year-end press conference - it's annual year-end because it's the Orthodox new year today. And he called the idea that Russia would pull back troops from its own territory absurd. He also reiterated Russia's demands for an end to NATO expansion. That wasn't a surprise. But he mocked also the idea that the U.S. had to consult with allies as a blatant stalling tactic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Lavrov's saying that Russia wants and expects a response to its proposals from the U.S. in written form and that Russia had made the U.S. understand Moscow wouldn't wait forever for answers. You know, but Russia's top negotiator this week - this is Lavrov's deputy, Sergei Ryabkov - he essentially nixed the idea that there was any negotiating to do. He argued Russia has been making concessions to the U.S. and NATO ever since the Cold War ended - the last 30 years, essentially - and now it was time for the other side to bend.

MARTIN: I mean, you can't get in his head, right? Nobody can. But is there any more clarity from external signals about Putin's intentions with all this?

MAYNES: In a word, no. Lavrov today said that once Russia had these answers from the U.S., they'll provide them to Putin. And if the answer is no, he said Putin would field options from his military advisers and choose a course of action, which doesn't tell us a lot.

MARTIN: And, Michele, finally, I mean, at least are the U.S. and NATO allies - do they emerge this week more or less united on how they would respond to Russian aggression?

KELEMEN: Well, certainly rhetorically they all seem united and - but Blinken is not saying what specific sanctions are ready to go. So we'll see if all this talk of unity is enough to deter Russia from taking further provocative steps or whether this unity stands if Russia re-invades.

MARTIN: NPR's Michele Kelemen and NPR's Charles Maynes, thanks to you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.