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NATO allies and Russia ended nearly four hours of security talks in a stalemate on Wednesday, with the West flatly rejecting Moscow’s calls for further expansion of alliance membership and the withdrawal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe.
“We can discuss many issues, but we cannot discuss some core principles,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference after the meeting.
He said the allies were adamant that they would heed Russia’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia would never join the alliance, nor would they allow Moscow to dictate where the allied countries would station their forces.
During talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the NATO side proposed a number of additional meetings, but the Russians neither accepted nor rejected the offer, Stoltenberg said.
The inconclusive result suggested that after Wednesday’s meeting and first eight-hour bilateral talks with the US on Monday in Geneva, Russian diplomats must now return home to receive further instructions from President Vladimir Putin.
This week’s meetings, which will be followed by a third meeting Thursday in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, were convened in response to Russia’s mobilization of 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine and threats by Russia of a potential military strike, if its safety requirements are not met.
The current impasse means a cloud of insecurity continues to hang over Ukraine, which has been a target of Russian aggression since the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and remains embroiled in a war with Russian-armed and funded separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
“There is a real risk of a new armed conflict in Europe,” said Stoltenberg. “We have clear eyes. So we also sent the message to Russia that there will be serious consequences if it uses military force; economic sanctions; political sanctions.”
In December, amid US warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin presented two draft treaties that Western officials and diplomats said would fundamentally rewrite Europe’s security architecture.
Among other demands, Russia insists that NATO effectively turn the clock back to 1997 before admitting many new countries from the former Eastern Bloc, including Poland.
Stoltenberg said at his press conference that Russia put those two proposed treaties on the table during Wednesday’s meeting, the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in more than two years.
The secretary-general said allies had urged Russia to de-escalate the situation at the border by withdrawing its forces, but Russian diplomats had not committed to doing so.
Other officials and diplomats said Russia used part of the session to voice a slew of old grievances, including NATO’s involvement in the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and also its 2011 air bombing campaign in Libya that killed the US contributed to dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Stoltenberg said NATO allies from the former Yugoslavia had directly opposed the Russian allegations.
Speaking at her own press conference at NATO headquarters, the top US official at the talks, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said the allies had demonstrated complete unity in confronting Russia.
Calling the meeting a “remarkable display of the power of diplomacy,” she said: “Thirty sovereign nations spoke individually – NATO allies – and also spoke as one. NATO allies unanimously endorsed a core set of international principles – that all countries must be able to choose their own foreign policy trajectories, that sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacrosanct.”
Sherman said Russian diplomats had expressed concerns about their own country’s security, but some of those concerns seemed to defy reality. Citing Russia’s capabilities as a major nuclear power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, she said: “You are a powerful country. That they feel threatened by Ukraine… is hard to understand.”