No Ukraine breakthrough, but NATO and Russia eye more talks

The decisions were taken at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, the first of its kind in more than two years. The fact that the Russian delegation did not withdraw from the talks and remained open to the prospect of future meetings despite the rejection of central demands from the West was seen as a positive note during a week of senior meetings. level aimed at avoiding a dreaded Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants NATO to withdraw its troops and military equipment from countries neighboring Russia, which includes Ukraine but also NATO allies such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Putin also wants the military alliance of 30 countries to agree to no longer admit members.

Speaking after the meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reiterated that some of Putin’s security demands “are simply in vain.”

“We will not close the door to NATO’s open door policy,” she told reporters after nearly four hours of talks. “We are not going to accept that NATO cannot expand further.”

The meeting was called as Russia gathered around 100,000 combat-ready troops, tanks and heavy military equipment near Ukraine’s eastern border. The build-up has raised deep concerns in Kiev and the West as Moscow is preparing for an invasion.

Russia denies having any new plans to attack its neighbor and in turn accuses the West of threatening its security.

While noting that “escalation does not create optimal conditions for diplomacy, to say the least,” Sherman also expressed optimism, given that Moscow has not rejected the idea of continue talks.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired the meeting, said NATO countries and Russian envoys “both expressed the need to resume dialogue and explore a schedule of future meetings “.

Stoltenberg said NATO wants to discuss ways to prevent dangerous military incidents or accidents and reduce space and cyber threats, as well as talk about arms control and disarmament, including setting agreed limits on missile deployments. .

But Stoltenberg said any talk about Ukraine would not be easy. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine in 2014 and supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. In the years that followed, fighting there left more than 14,000 dead and devastated the industrial heart of Ukraine, known as Donbass.

“There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on this issue” of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership, Stoltenberg told reporters after what he called an “exchange. very serious and direct “with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.

Stoltenberg stressed that Ukraine has the right to decide on its future security agreements and that NATO will continue to leave its door open to new members, rejecting a key demand from Putin that the military organization stop its expansion.

“No one else has anything to say, and of course Russia doesn’t have a veto,” he said.

Grushko, for his part, called Wednesday’s talks “serious, deep and substantial.” He offered a less optimistic assessment, stressing that NATO expansion poses a threat to Russia’s security, but also did not rule out future talks with the alliance.

“It is absolutely imperative to put an end to the open-door policy and to offer Russia legally binding guarantees preventing further NATO expansion to the east,” Grushko added. “The freedom to choose the means to ensure one’s security must not be implemented in a manner which prejudices the legitimate security interests of others. “

The NATO-Russia Council was established two decades ago, but plenary meetings were interrupted when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula seven years ago. It has only met sporadically since.

Russian proposals rejected on Wednesday included a draft agreement with NATO countries and the offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States.

The deal would have forced NATO to end all membership plans, not just with Ukraine, and reduce its presence in countries close to Russia’s borders. In return, Russia would pledge to limit its war games and end low-intensity hostilities such as aircraft humming incidents.

Approval of such an agreement would mean that NATO would abandon a key principle of its founding treaty, according to which the alliance can invite any European country willing to contribute to security in the North Atlantic region and fulfill the membership obligations.

In the United States on Wednesday, Senate Democrats released their White House-backed bill that would increase sanctions against Russia if it sends troops to Ukraine. The measures would target Putin, his main civilian and military leaders and major Russian financial institutions.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, and Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.

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This version has been corrected to show that Wendy Sherman is Assistant Secretary of State of the United States, not Secretary of State.

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