(CNN)The last of three meetings aimed at ratcheting down tensions with Moscow over its potential invasion of Ukraine ended without a clear breakthrough, leaving prospects for future diplomacy and de-escalation in doubt as Russian officials warned they could soon turn to military options.
Thursday’s meeting in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) capped a week of intensive engagements that the United States and its NATO allies hoped could spur Russia to pursue a path of “de-escalation and diplomacy” rather than mobilizing the tens of thousands of Russian troops whose presence has swelled along Ukraine’s borders.
However, in the wake of the meetings, Russian officials reacted with frustration and impatience, suggesting they were poised to abandon discussions over the US and NATO’s refusal to entertain Moscow’s key demands: guarantees that Ukraine will never be permitted to join NATO and that the alliance roll back its expansion in Eastern Europe. The US and its NATO allies have repeatedly said such proposals from Moscow are non-starters.
“The jury’s out on which path Vladimir Putin is going to choose,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken after the conclusion of the week’s meetings, in an interview with MSNBC. “Is he going to choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue to resolve some of these problems or is he going to pursue confrontation and aggression?”
The head of the US delegation, Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman, told reporters after the talks at NATO that the Russians themselves may not know yet what their next move is. Throughout this week’s talks, the US has repeatedly argued that diplomacy can’t happen unless Russia de-escalates, which Sherman on Monday said the US defined as Russia returning its troops to barracks or telling the US “that exercises are ongoing and what their purpose is.”
After Wednesday’s meeting at NATO, Sherman said Russia had not committed to any de-escalation.
“I do not think we need to explain how absolutely unacceptable such demands are, and, of course, we will not even discuss them,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday.
US officials have expressed hope that discussions over areas of mutual interest between Russia and the US — including nuclear weapons, intermediate range missiles and transparency over military exercises — could keep the diplomatic conversations going. NATO leaders noted that Wednesday was the first time Russia had agreed to a meeting with the alliance in two years and they sat through the four hour-long meeting, which was longer than had been scheduled.
“I think the reality is that I will say that the Russian delegation sat through nearly four hours of a meeting where 30 nations spoke, and they did, which is not an easy thing to do,” she said Wednesday.
But if that gave the impression Russia might have been open to compromise positions, Russia quickly poured cold water on it.
“The US and its NATO allies are not ready to meet Russia halfway on the key issues,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thrusday, according to state news agency TASS. “The main problem is that the United States and its NATO allies, under no guise, for any reason are not ready to meet our key demands.”
Blinken had warned before the talks that no breakthroughs were expected this week “in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head.”
As Russia and NATO appeared to talk past each other, the language they used illustrated how far apart they remain. Russia had proposed specific treaty language in the weeks ahead of the meetings and called them “negotiations” while Sherman countered that no formal terms were put forward in what she called “discussions.”
Sherman said that she did not know if the Russians had come to the table for the three days of talks in good faith, or as a pretext in an attempt to justify future military action.
“If Russia walks away, however, it will be quite apparent they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy at all. That is why collectively we are preparing for every eventuality,” she noted.
CNN’s Anna Chernova, Zahra Ullah and Mick Krever contributed to this report.