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Neither side is optimistic ahead of U.S.-Russia talks over Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Sunday.
Andriy Dubchak
A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Sunday.

As 100,000 Russian troops surround Ukraine on three sides, raising the specter of a Russian invasion, officials on both sides were pessimistic Sunday about the possibility that upcoming U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva would lead to any real breakthroughs.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands that the U.S. pull troops out of Eastern Europe, or rule out expanding NATO to include Ukraine.

"Neither of those is on the table," Blinken told CNN's State of the Union.

Blinken didn't rule out moving heavy U.S. weaponry out of Poland, moving missiles, or limiting the scope of U.S. military exercises. If Russia enters into these talks "in good faith," Blinken said, it's possible that the two sides can address concerns and reduce tensions. But prospects are dim while Russia continues to amass troops on Ukraine's border.

"It's hard to see making actual progress as opposed to talking in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine's head," Blinken said. "So if we're actually going to make progress, we're going to have to see de-escalation, Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses to Ukraine."

Russia has spent the past few months building up its forces on the border. U.S. officials have warned the number of troops could soon double.

The U.S. believes that Putin is driven by a desire to restore Russia's sphere of influence over former Soviet countries and that he fears Ukraine becoming more aligned with the West and joining NATO.

Russia already invaded and seized Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014 and has supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"We can't go back to a world of spheres of influence. That was a recipe for instability, a recipe for conflict, a recipe that led to world wars," Blinken said Sunday.

The U.S. is threatening Russia with sanctions if it invades Ukraine

In collaboration with European partners, the U.S. is planning "massive" financial and economic consequences if Putin renews aggression, Blinken said on ABC's This Week. NATO would "almost certainly" have to "reinforce its positions on its Eastern flank near Russia as well as continuing to provide defensive assistance to Ukraine," he said.

Russia has said that its military build-up along the border is a response to Ukrainian aggression; which Blinken has characterized as "gaslighting."

U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, met with their Russian counterparts Sunday evening, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, for a working dinner to discuss the topics for Monday's talks, dubbed the "Strategic Stability Dialogue."

The two sides seem far apart. Ryabkov told the state media agency TASS Sunday that the U.S. requirement that Russia de-escalate is a "non-starter." Nor would Russia discuss changing its position on Crimea, he said. The two sides have "dramatic, fundamental" differences on those positions, Ryabkov said.

NATO officials also plan to meet with Russian officials on Wednesday in Brussels, and the U.S. will join the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Vienna for talks with Russia on Thursday.

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Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").