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Russia and the West go into the third round of talks over the fate of Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia and NATO go into the third and final leg of a diplomatic triathlon today. It's part of a series of talks this week over the fate of Ukraine. The first two rounds produced no agreements that would lead Russia to stand down the 100,000 troops it has massed near its border with Ukraine. One of the big issues has been Russia's demand that Ukraine never be admitted into the Western alliance. NATO said yesterday it would not agree to that. NPR's Charles Maynes is following the developments and joins us on the line from Moscow. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So big talks. Every time another day of negotiations ends, I feel like officials come out and say, yeah, no, nothing - nothing here. Why?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the two sides really seem to be talking past one another. The West wants Russia to de-escalate its forces near Ukraine, fearing of an invasion, as you mentioned. Russia, clearly using the threat of force while professing not to, is demanding that Ukraine be barred from NATO membership and, as well, that the alliance roll back its presence in Eastern Europe entirely. The U.S. and its allies clearly see those Russian demands as nonstarters. Ukraine may or may not become a member of NATO, they say, but it's not up to Russia to decide. And they're still warning of massive sanctions and adding forces to the region should Russia pursue aggression.

Meanwhile, after yesterday's talks, Russia's chief negotiator, Alexander Grushko, vowed that if it did come to that, Moscow would hit back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER GRUSHKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Grushko says that if NATO chooses a policy of trying to contain Russia, Russia will respond with countermeasures, and if they try to intimidate Russia, Russia will intimidate back.

MARTIN: That doesn't sound good. I mean, so now the stakes are pretty high for this third and final round of talks, no?

MAYNES: They are, and yet there's not much expected to come out of it. This is in a bigger venue. This is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It's got 57 members. Interesting it also includes Ukraine, which for the first time will be present in all of these discussions about its future. But Russians have really signaled they see the U.S. as the key decision-maker here. They seem to prefer the optics of the old Cold War superpower format of bilateral talks.

MARTIN: How closely are Russians following all this?

MAYNES: Well, you know, they're following it in the sense that Ukraine is constantly in the news. It's usually portrayed as this dysfunctional place with nationalists run amok. There's certainly a lot of talk here about how disruptive the new sanctions might be, and there's concern over the possibility of conflict with NATO. A recent poll came out that found over 50% of Russians were worried about the outbreak of a world war. That said, frankly, there's a lot of coverage that's been devoted to other issues - for example, what's happening in neighboring Kazakhstan. This is where Russia deployed troops as part of this regional security force last week to quell protests.

MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about that. The government there in Kazakhstan claimed that protesters were trying to mount a coup. They called in Russia for help. What's the situation?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, the Russian-led troops began their formal withdrawal this morning in a ceremony in Almaty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND FANFARE)

MAYNES: And so as what you're hearing suggests, the Russian-led mission has been portrayed as a great success here - you know, Moscow coming to its neighbor's aid and preventing what both the Kremlin and the authorities in Kazakhstan now say was an attempt by foreign-backed terrorists to overthrow the government. Russian commentators have suggested this was if not Western backed then at least tacitly Western approved, an effort to destabilize Kazakhstan. And going forward, Russian President Vladimir Putin says this Russian-led security force is really ready to defend other former Soviet states from Western-backed coups.

MARTIN: So does all this empower Putin in this moment?

MAYNES: Well, it does in the sense that this operation projects on to Russia's negotiations with the West over Ukraine. It signals that Russia is ready to defend its sphere of influence. And, you know, the fact is, Russia's been pressing its demands with NATO so publicly that it's hard to see how Putin can sell any compromise as a win at home. And that's really still the fear here, that these diplomatic initiatives we've seen all this past week were not, in fact, a good faith effort but just designed to fail in order to justify force.

MARTIN: NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Thank you.

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