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US and Russian officials have agreed to discuss Ukraine tensions and role of NATO

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tensions are high over Ukraine. A buildup of Russian military forces near the border of that country raises concerns of an invasion and a showdown with the U.S. NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much for being with us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

SIMON: How did things get to this point?

MAYNES: You know, for over a month now, the U.S. has been raising the alarm over some 100,000 Russian forces gathering near the border of Ukraine. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied its troops pose any threat, and yet it's pretty clear now, you know, Moscow has used this demonstration of strength to pull the U.S. into discussions about not only Ukraine's future, but also the role of NATO in Eastern Europe. And what Russia says it wants are security guarantees - legally binding assurances that would, you know, not only keep NATO out of Ukraine and other states bordering Russia, but also roll back the alliance's activities, back to where they were in the late 1990s, in fact, before all these former communist countries in Eastern Europe joined.

SIMON: Vladimir Putin gave his annual press conference this week. Did he offer some idea of where things might be headed on this issue?

MAYNES: Yeah, he said that Russia didn't want conflict, but he also made clear the Kremlin wants its demands taken seriously. And he raised what are familiar grievances here. He says that NATO had taken advantage of Russian weakness in the 1990s. It had tricked Moscow in the past by breaking promises to not expand towards Russia's borders. And Putin said those days are now over. Let's listen in for a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Putin here is saying that Russia's actions won't be determined by the outcome of some negotiations with the U.S., but only by Russia receiving ironclad security guarantees over the long term. Now, I should add that Putin's answers on Ukraine weren't all a harangue. He also said he saw it as positive that the U.S. was considering Russian proposals. In fact, he announced that there would be talks in Geneva between the U.S. and Russia right - early next month, soon after the new year

SIMON: And the U.S. confirms that?

MAYNES: Well, they are in the sense that they say the meeting will take place. They're not getting into specifics. But we do know the U.S. position here. They say that they're willing to talk with Russia about its security concerns. But they say that even the Kremlin knows that many of its terms are non-starters, that they're essentially conditions the U.S. will never agree to, such as, for example, giving Russia a veto over the alliance's future membership. And while White House officials also say they have their demands of what they want to see from Russia - and that begins with de-escalation near Ukraine. And meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies have all warned the Kremlin it will face what they say are massive consequences, including tough economic sanctions should Russia choose to use force against its neighbor.

SIMON: And while the world waits on those negotiations, Charles, what's the risk of direct military conflict now with guns point at each other along the border?

MAYNES: You know, yeah, it's still tense. There are still thousands of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, and Ukraine has its forces dug in in defensive positions. Now, just to back up a bit, let's remember this is all taking place in the east of Ukraine in the Donbas, where Russia is backing separatists in a long-simmering war with the government in Kiev. And now there have been some reports that some Russian volunteers, mercenaries who were active in the war in east Ukraine in 2015, are now headed back to the Donbas to reinforce the separatists.

You know, if there's a glimmer of hope here, it's that the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has renegotiated a cease-fire in that region. And that cease-fire is key if it holds because it's part of this wider stalled peace deal between Russia and Ukraine called the Minsk accords. Now, the thing is here that in the past, Russia has seen the Minsk agreement as a way to extend its influence over Ukraine, partly because it grants more autonomy to these Russian-speaking enclaves in the Donbas. Only now it seems that the Minsk deal was just a means to an end, with the greater goal of keeping Ukraine very much in Moscow's orbit.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

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