A third round of talks in Europe in a week aimed at defusing tensions between Russia and the West appears to have ended in deadlock, with neither side budging on their core positions in tense diplomacy seeking to avoid a major security crisis.
Diplomats offered a dire assessment of developments at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna on January 13, taking place against the backdrop of Western concerns that a Russian military buildup on Ukraine's doorstep may be a prelude to an invasion.
"It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years," Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said, launching his country's yearlong chairmanship of the 57-member security organization.
"For several weeks we have been faced with the prospect of a major military escalation in Eastern Europe," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a series of demands for security guarantees in Europe, including NATO not accepting new members like Ukraine and Georgia and limits on allied deployments in Eastern European NATO members.
Western officials say Russia’s combative rhetoric and buildup of some 100,000 troops near Ukraine is an attempt to pressure the United States and European allies to bend toward the Kremlin's wish list.
Moscow insists its military deployment is a response to what it sees as the growing presence of NATO in its sphere of influence and denies it plans to invade Ukraine.
The U.S. envoy to the OSCE talks said the West should not give in to blackmail.
"As we prepare for an open dialogue on how to strengthen security for the benefit of all, we must decisively reject blackmail and never allow aggression and threats to be rewarded,” U.S. Ambassador Michael Carpenter told the OSCE meeting.
Reinforcing Moscow's increasingly tough stance on demanding security guarantees from the West, Russia’s representative Alexander Lukashevich told the OSCE that his country would take action if its concerns were not taken seriously.
"If we don't hear a constructive response to our proposals within a reasonable time frame and an aggressive line of behavior towards Russia continues, we will be forced to draw appropriate conclusions and take all necessary measures to ensure strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our national security,” he said after the talks in Vienna.
"Russia is a peace-loving country. But we do not need peace at any cost. The need to obtain these legally formalized security guarantees for us is unconditional,” he added.
Lukashevich said Russia wasn't getting "a constructive response" to its proposals.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: "I believe that the only way for the Russians to confirm their lack of intention to solve problems by force is to continue the discussion in the established formats, in particular in the OSCE."
OSCE observers monitor the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where a nearly eight-year war between Russia-backed separatists and government forces has killed more than 13,200 people.
The barrage of pessimistic comments overshadowed hopes for a quick breakthrough after a week of high-stakes diplomacy that saw Russian representatives meet with NATO members in Brussels following a two-year hiatus and top diplomats from Moscow and Washington holding bilateral strategic talks in Geneva.
Briefing reporters after the week of talks, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States had not determined whether Russia has made the political decision to further invade Ukraine and that there was still hope to make diplomacy prevail.
"We're ready to make progress at the negotiating table... and we're ready to take the necessary and proper steps to defend our allies, support our partners and respond robustly to any naked aggression that might occur,” Sullivan said.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sounded a little more upbeat, suggesting negotiators under the so-called Normandy format could soon meet to find a political path to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
As mediators, both Germany and France have tried several times to revive the Normandy talks, which include Ukraine and Russia. The last high-level meeting within the four-way framework occurred in Paris in 2019.