U.S. to discuss missiles in Ukraine and military exercises with Russians, officials say

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Top U.S. officials will head into talks with Russian counterparts Monday willing to discuss the placement of missiles in Ukraine and the scope of regional military exercises, two administration officials said Saturday.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will join Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, in Geneva Monday for bilateral talks over the standoff in Ukraine. Russia has roughly 100,000 troops stationed along the borders of the Eastern European country, leading the U.S. and its allies to seek a diplomatic resolution before a potential invasion.

The U.S. is prepared to discuss two separate issues, say administration officials. The first concerns Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fear that the U.S. will place missiles in Ukraine. President Joe Biden told Putin that America has no intention of doing that, “so this is one area where we may be able to reach an understanding if Russia is willing to make a reciprocal commitment," a senior administration official told reporters Saturday.

The second track will cover military exercises, which have contributed to a dialing up of tensions between Moscow and Washington. Russia has grown the size and intensity of its drills that it runs near NATO territory. Meanwhile, the Kremlin continuously complains about the increased tempo of NATO exercises in the Baltic region which often involve U.S. armored units and mobile artillery. These exercises occasionally include non-NATO allies like Sweden and Finland, which have drawn closer to the alliance in recent years. Both Russia and the U.S. have also increased the numbers of flights of nuclear-capable bombers along either side of Ukraine border.

Biden’s team therefore believes there’s room for negotiations over reciprocal restrictions on ground-based exercises and those featuring strategic bombers.

Administration officials made clear to POLITICO and others that more items will be up for discussion. But it’s too early to know if the Russians will negotiate in good faith and there’s little to no expectation of a concrete agreement from the Geneva session or subsequent talks alongside NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“What [the Russians] say behind closed doors are going to be much more important in determining whether there is a constructive path,” the senior administration official told reporters.

The Washington Post first reported the Biden administration’s negotiation positions.

The issue of missiles in Ukraine will be a significant part of the talks, as Moscow has long complained over U.S. missiles in Eastern Europe. There is an Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Romania, and another being built in Poland, which are designed to take down Iranian ballistic missiles.

Putin has long said the sites could be used to launch offensive missiles into Russia, though the systems are defensive in nature.

The bilateral talks between the U.S. and Russia have led to some concern the U.S. team might consider unilaterally trading security guarantees and military capabilities, though one diplomat from a NATO country told POLITICO that allies have been assured by Washington that rolling back the alliance’s posture isn’t on the table.

“Nobody's talking about pulling out NATO troops from their current locations. So in that sense, we are not that worried,” the diplomat said.

In the call with reporters, the administration official tried to tamp down concern elsewhere within the NATO alliance. "Nothing will be committed to or agreed to that is not done in full consultation, with full participation of any country or any of our allies whose security interests are implicated" they said.

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