The United States and its European allies are holding a series of high-level talks this week with Moscow, addressing the Kremlin’s demands for sweeping restrictions on NATO enlargement and operations as well as Western concerns about what US intelligence says are Russian preparations for a possible new invasion of Ukraine.

The stakes are high for all parties involved. The outcome of the meetings – and how Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to assess them – could have enormous consequences for the future of Ukraine, NATO, and European security, analysts said.

The three separate sets of talks, slated for January 9-13, come at a nadir in post-Cold War relations between the West and Russia, which has increasingly used military force and energy leverage to claw back some of the geopolitical influence it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Fears of an escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine will be in the air as Western and Russian officials meet first in Geneva, then in Brussels, and then in Vienna to discuss, among other things, Russia’s demands for what it calls security guarantees – but what some analysts term an aggressive bid for a recognised sphere of influence – as well as what Western officials say are Moscow’s destabilizing actions across much of the continent.

Russia has amassed about 100,000 combat-ready troops north and east of the border with Ukraine and in Crimea, which Moscow occupied and seized in 2014, and is also backing separatists in the eastern Donbas region where an armed conflict with Kyiv has killed more an 13,000 people since the same year.

Kyiv’s efforts to escape Moscow’s orbit, avert any further Russian aggression, and potentially join NATO in the future are issues that will be at the heart of the talks, at least informally.

The Kremlin has called NATO membership for Ukraine a “red line”. One of the main demands set out in the proposed agreements with the United States and NATO last month was a binding pledge that the Western alliance would never take in Ukraine or any other country near Russia’s borders.

John Herbst, the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-06 and now an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL he believes the Russian buildup is an attempt to “intimidate the United States, Germany, and Ukraine into making concessions” during the talks.

US and NATO officials have said that some of Russia’s demands, such as a bar on NATO expansion and the withdrawal of NATO infrastructure from Central and Eastern Europe, are nonstarters – and that Russia knows this.

That has led some analysts to suspect they are just political theater ahead of an offensive against Ukraine, while others argue they are the opening salvo by a confident Russia in serious, long-term talks.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has called some of Russia’s demands “unacceptable”, stressing that every nation has the sovereign right to determine which alliances to seek to join.

At the same time, the administration has said that diplomacy with Russia on security issues is “merited” – but that it must be reciprocal. US officials have also emphasised repeatedly that no decisions will be made without consulting allies and partners, including Ukraine.

The meetings kick off on January 9-10 in Geneva, where US and Russian officials are expected to discuss the mounting tensions over Ukraine as well as arms control. On January 12, the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in over two years is to be held in Brussels.

Those talks will be followed by a January 13 meeting in Vienna within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States, its European allies, Ukraine, and Russia.

Neither Biden nor Putin will be attending the meetings.