In high-stakes meeting, Russia tells U.S. it isn't planning to invade Ukraine

In high-stakes meeting, Russia tells U.S. it isn't planning to invade Ukraine

2:42pm Jan 10, 2022
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva on Monday. The U.S., Russia and European countries are holding a series of talks this week in an attempt to reduc
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva on Monday. The U.S., Russia and European countries are holding a series of talks this week in an attempt to reduc
Denis Balibouse / AP
  • U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva on Monday. The U.S., Russia and European countries are holding a series of talks this week in an attempt to reduc

    U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meet at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva on Monday. The U.S., Russia and European countries are holding a series of talks this week in an attempt to reduc

    Denis Balibouse / AP

  • A member of Ukraine's military walks in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Friday. President Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. could impose new sanctions aga

    A member of Ukraine's military walks in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Friday. President Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. could impose new sanctions aga

    Andriy Dubchak / AP

Top U.S. and Russian diplomats said they had constructive talks Monday in Geneva, but they did not achieve a breakthrough in their attempt to defuse tensions regarding the Russian troop buildup on the Ukraine-Russia border.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov emerged from the nearly eight hours of talks and declared, "There are no plans or intentions to attack Ukraine." He went on to say, "There is no reason to fear some kind of escalatory scenario."

But the Russian troops remain in place, and Ukraine and its supporters describe them as a serious threat.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said in a separate briefing that "0ne country cannot change the borders of another's by force."

She also stressed that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. would step up financial and trade sanctions and would increase military assistance to Ukraine.

Both sides presented proposals, and further talks could follow soon, said Sherman, who described Monday's meeting as a discussion, not a negotiation.

The most urgent topic in a series of meetings this week is the roughly 100,000 troops whom Russia has placed near Ukraine. But Russia has raised other issues such as NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe over the past two decades.

Ryabkov reiterated Russia's demand that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia never be allowed to join NATO, but he acknowledged there was no progress Monday on this issue.

"Ukraine and Georgia will never, ever become members of NATO," he said. "We are fed up with loose talk, half-promises or loose interpretation of what happened in negotiations behind closed doors. We do not trust the other side. We need ironclad, legally binding guarantees."

Sherman countered by saying that NATO "will not allow anyone to slam close NATO's open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance."

NATO said back in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia could seek membership. But in practical terms, there's no prospect either country will join the alliance in the near future.

As part of this week's diplomatic effort, the U.S. and its NATO partners also plan to meet Russian officials on Wednesday in Brussels, the headquarters of the military alliance. And the U.S. will join the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Vienna for talks with Russia on Thursday.

U.S. says it will coordinate with Ukraine and Europe

While the Russians prefer direct talks with the U.S., the Biden administration says it will not work out any deals on Ukraine, or on any other issue involving European security, without the Europeans at the table.

"We've made very clear to Russia that there's going to be nothing about Europe, without Europe," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday.

In addition, he said, "Any progress that we're going to make is going to have to happen on a reciprocal basis. If the United States and Europe are taking steps to address some of Russia's concerns, Russia will have to do the same thing."

Russia began moving large numbers of troops and heavy weaponry toward its western border with Ukraine last fall. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies that Russia is planning to invade.

However, Russia has had troops in Ukraine since seizing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. In addition, Russia is also supporting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Putin wrote a long essay last summer arguing that Russia and Ukraine are essentially one country. While that has been true at times in their 1,000-year history, Ukraine has its own culture, language and identity and has been independent for more than 30 years, since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

More Ukrainians tilt toward the West

Putin does not want to see Ukraine becoming more integrated with Western Europe. Yet Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine, as well as the current military buildup, has led many Ukrainians to support closer ties with the West.

Ukrainians, meanwhile, feel that Russia's pressure campaign could also include cyberattacks, which Russia has carried out in recent years.

In 2015, the Russian hacking group Sandworm took down Ukraine's power grid. Two years later, Russian hackers hit websites, banks, newspapers and electric companies with a malware called Petya.

Nolan Peterson, a former U.S. Air Force special operations pilot, who has been living in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, since 2014, said Ukrainian troops are very aware of Russia's technical capabilities. This has made the Ukrainians extremely cautious in how they operate.

"You don't shine a flashlight on a bright night. In the same way, the Ukrainians don't want to use military radios or cellphones on the front lines," Peterson said.

In some cases, Ukrainians have returned to analog times, using old technology, or no technology at all. Peterson said this can mean making calls on rotary-dial phones or using people to run messages by hand.

Russia considers cyberattacks part of its hybrid warfare strategy, which is designed to weaken the morale of Ukraine's military as well as its civilian population.

"I've had a lot of Ukrainian soldiers tell me that before major attacks, they will receive cellphone text messages or their families will receive emails from the Russian side, threatening them, telling them that they're all going to die and things like that, or telling them that they've been betrayed by their civilian leadership," Peterson said.

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Transcript

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. and Russia are holding talks today in Geneva against the backdrop of 100,000 Russian troops massed near Russia's border with Ukraine. The huge military buildup raises the possibility of yet another Russian invasion of its neighbor. But a ground assault is not the only Russian option. Moscow has carried out cyberattacks against Ukraine in recent years and could do it again. Here to discuss a range of scenarios, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Let's start with you, Greg. Where do things stand on possible Russian military invasion of Ukraine?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, right now we're looking at a big week of diplomacy. The U.S. delegation, led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is meeting with the Russians right now in Geneva. And then on Wednesday and Thursday, the U.S. and its European allies are meeting with Russia in an even bigger forum. So it is a very tense moment. And the sides are very far apart. The secretary of state, Tony Blinken, went on the Sunday talk shows and said he really didn't expect a breakthrough when Russia, as he put it, has a gun to the head of Ukraine.

And the Russian side, for its part, was also not optimistic. And this Russian military buildup includes tanks, armored vehicles and artillery, all placed in the snow and the mud of western Russia. So this could be preparation for a major attack. Or, perhaps, it's just brinksmanship by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, seeking to win diplomatic concessions. And, A, we should remember that Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula back in 2014, still has troops there to this day. And Russia is also supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. So this Russian threat has to be taken seriously. And that's certainly what Ukraine is doing.

MARTINEZ: And, Greg, ultimately, what does Vladimir Putin want here?

MYRE: Well, in the short term, we don't know. He certainly has this reputation as an unpredictable actor. But in the long term, actually, it is a little clearer. He thinks Ukraine is part of Russia's sphere of influence. And he sees it drifting away, becoming more aligned with the West. And Putin wrote a long essay last year saying that Russia and Ukraine are essentially one country. And in fact, that has been true at certain moments in their thousand-year history. But Ukraine has its own culture and language and identity. And it's been independent now for the last 30 years. I think Putin's biggest fear is that Ukraine becomes a close partner or a member of NATO. And more broadly, Putin wants NATO to pull back from Eastern Europe. And yet, ironically, his actions have really achieved the exact opposite. He is turning many Ukrainians away from Russia.

MARTINEZ: Jenna, I know that the threat of cyberattacks could also be key when it comes to this standoff. Can you tell us more about that?

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Sure, A. Yeah. So the way that Greg said that Ukrainians are becoming weary of this conflict that's been going on since 2014, Ukrainians are also really familiar with being the targets of cyberattacks from Russia. Back in 2015, Sandworm, a Russian hacking group, took out the power grid and left many Ukrainians in the dark. For sci-fi fans, it was named for "Dune's" giant tunneling heroes. But then in 2017, the Russians also hit websites, banks, newspapers, electric companies with digital tax using damaging malware called Petya. It was disguised as ransomware, which is a tactic we see a lot these days. But it was actually meant to do lots of damage. And it was launched around Ukraine's Constitution Day for maximum political impact. And Russia's used some of those tactics that they developed in Ukraine, including disinformation on the U.S. and other Western nations during elections.

MARTINEZ: And, Jenna, how is Russia using technology in the current conflict?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. So I spoke to Nolan Petersen about that. He's a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations pilot. And he's been in Kyiv since 2014, reporting on the war, often making trips to the front lines, embedding with Ukrainian troops. He says that Ukrainian troops are really aware of Russia's technical capabilities, including their ability to launch cyberattacks but some other capabilities as well. So that includes use of drones. They can really mess with GPS signals. And they're excellent at tracking radio and cellphone signals. They actually target a lot of their attacks based on those electronic signatures. Here's how Nolan Peterson put it.

NOLAN PETERSON: You don't shine a flashlight on a bright night. In the same way, the Ukrainians don't want to use military radios or cellphones on the front lines.

MCLAUGHLIN: So as a result, Ukrainians have actually been really innovative. They've been going back to analog times, simpler technology or no technology at all. Peterson says that they're using rotary phones, actual people to run messages back from the front lines, as well as some encrypted phone applications when they're near populated towns so that they can blend in with the digital noise of the city.

MARTINEZ: Wow. All right. So Jenna, technology clearly a part of modern warfare. But technically, is a cyberattack an act of war?

MCLAUGHLIN: That's a good question, A. Russia considers cyberattacks part of their hybrid warfare strategy. It's not necessarily about shutting the country down with a cyber strike alone but, you know, messing with Ukraine. And it's also to their advantage that the international community hasn't really come to a consensus about the rules of the road and conflict for digital attacks. Peterson says that the prospect of cyberattacks for Ukrainians is a tool that has a big impact on morale for both civilians and the military alike, in a similar way that flyers used to be dropped from planes to demoralize opposing forces. Peterson had one example of how what used to be analog has really gone digital.

PETERSON: I've had a lot of Ukrainian soldiers tell me that before major attacks, you know, they will receive cellphone text messages or their families will receive emails from the Russian side, threatening them, telling them that they're all going to die and things like that - or telling them that they've been betrayed by their civilian leadership.

MCLAUGHLIN: So these kinds of tactics could be a prelude to escalating attacks, like targeting the power grid, putting further pressure for diplomatic concessions. But at the end of the day, Ukrainians might not be worrying too much about technology if the physical conflict heats up like Greg was talking about.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Greg, let's take a step back for a second. I mean, with this tension over Ukraine, should we expect, maybe, increased friction on other fronts in the larger U.S.-Russia relationship?

MYRE: Well, the trend lines certainly point in this direction. President Biden and Putin held a summit last June in Geneva, which the site of today's talks. But unlike other previous U.S. presidents, Biden was not really looking for a reset with Russia. He did say he wanted some rules of the road so the countries could work toward a stable and predictable relationship and don't just lurch from crisis to crisis. But even those modest aims haven't succeeded. Putin was dismissive of the things that Biden was mentioning. He said the U.S. needed to get its own house in order. And now here we are just months later with this Russian troop buildup and another crisis facing the two countries.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre and Jenna McLaughlin. Thanks, you two.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks.

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

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