A new round of talks between Russia and NATO countries aimed at averting a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine has again ended with little progress, with both sides still deadlocked over demands for Russian security guarantees.
Russia on Wednesday met 30 NATO member states at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, the second of three diplomatic meetings held this week in Europe between Russia and Western countries amid fears over the rally of 100,000 Russian soldiers at the Ukrainian border.
During Wednesday’s talks, NATO offered Russia a series of meetings to discuss arms control and other confidence-building measures to persuade it to reduce tensions around Ukraine. Alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he had proposed talks on limiting missile deployments and troop exercises as well as how to improve communication and transparency. He then told reporters that Russia said it needed time to consider the offer, but did not reject it out of hand.
“We are ready to sit down,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “And we hope that Russia is ready to sit down and hold these meetings.”
But NATO unanimously rejected basic Moscow demands for formal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance will withdraw its forces from Eastern European countries that joined afterwards. the Cold War. Russia and the United States held talks in Geneva on Monday where Moscow insisted on the demands and which the United States rejected as impossible.
NATO and the United States have said they will never compromise on what they have called the “core principles” of the alliance, after Russian negotiators Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, again presented the same demands at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Together, the United States and our NATO allies have made it clear that we will not close the door to NATO’s open door policy,” said US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who headed the US delegation, after the meeting, calling them a “non-starter.”
But while Russia’s main demand has again been rejected, the door to a diplomatic solution remains open, US and NATO officials said.
“There was no commitment to de-escalation, nor any statement that there would be none,” Sherman added, even praising the Russian delegation for attending “nearly four hours from a meeting during which 30 nations spoke out – and they did – which is not an easy thing to do. I’m glad they did. “
She and Stoltenberg said Russia now had a choice whether or not to engage in dialogue, saying she hoped Russian negotiators would now return to President Vladimir Putin and choose “peace and security.”
Russia made sweeping demands of NATO in two draft treaties in December after building up troops near Ukraine for months. This build-up, along with belligerent rhetoric and “internal sabotage” plans, according to US officials, have raised fears that Putin is preparing to launch a new attack on the country after taking Crimea and launching a separatist war in 2014. .
Russia has denied its intention to attack Ukraine, despite the build-up on its border. Amid diplomatic efforts, he held live fire exercises with 3,000 troops and hundreds of tanks on Tuesday in three neighboring regions of Ukraine.
The United States and NATO hoped Russia would accept more modest offers, such as limiting missile deployments and troop exercises. But Russian negotiator Grushko again insisted on Wednesday that Russia could not agree to anything less than guarantees on Ukraine and NATO, calling it “imperative.” No progress on arms control or confidence-building measures could be made without progress on basic Moscow demands, he told reporters afterwards.
Grushko said Russia is now waiting for NATO and the United States to send written responses to the Russian proposals and will then make a decision on how to proceed.
Russia has complained for decades about NATO’s expansion into countries once dominated by Moscow under the Soviet Union. The Kremlin now claims that NATO aid to Ukraine means that the former Soviet country becomes de facto part of the alliance. The United States and NATO say Moscow’s request is an attempt to re-impose its Soviet-era sphere of influence on Eastern Europe and violates a fundamental right for countries to choose their security alliances.
Grushko said de-escalation was “absolutely possible,” but he warned that expanding the alliance to include Eastern Europe had become “unbearable” for Russia, warning that if Russia felt threatened, it would use “military means”.
“We have a range of military-technical measures that we will use if we feel a real threat to our security,” Grushko said. “And we are already feeling it, if they see our territory as a target for guided and offensive weapons. Of course, we cannot agree with that. We will take all necessary measures to repel the threat with means. military, if the policies don’t work. “
But Grushko also spoke positively of the talks, saying for the first time that he believed Russia had “succeeded in making alliance members understand that the situation is unbearable.”
Stoltenberg said Russia could not have a veto over Ukraine joining the alliance, saying Russian claims that Ukraine felt threatened by Ukraine were also wrong.
“Ukraine is a sovereign nation. Ukraine has the right to defend itself,” he said. “Ukraine is not a threat to Russia. To say Ukraine is a threat to Russia is to turn everything upside down.”
Western officials have tried to figure out whether the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine is real or a bluff to strengthen Moscow’s hands as it formulates its demands. Sherman suggested this remains an open question, perhaps even for the Kremlin itself.
“Everyone, especially Russia, will have to decide whether it is really about security, in which case they should get involved, or if it was all just a pretext,” she said. “And they might not even know it yet.”
While the build-up, including new live-fire drills on Wednesday, could still be a negotiating tactic, some Western officials and independent experts are also concerned that Russia will enter the talks with the intention of derailing them. , in order to use it as a pretext. for military intervention.
“The United States and our allies and partners are not dragging their feet. It is Russia that faces a difficult choice: de-escalation and diplomacy, or confrontation and consequences,” Sherman said. “If Russia pulls away, however, it will be quite obvious that they have never been serious about pursuing diplomacy.”
On Thursday, talks will move to a third round at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Cold War-era forum that includes all the countries of the continent, the United States and Canada and several in Central Asia. These talks are expected to yield even less results, with 57 member states participating in an open dialogue.
The Kremlin has suggested it will decide whether it is worth continuing talks after this week’s meetings. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Moscow “sees no substantial reason to be optimistic” so far, but so far it is not drawing any conclusions.