No Ukraine breakthrough as NATO and Russia eye more talks

The United States and NATO on Wednesday dismissed key Russian security demands to ease tensions in Ukraine, but left open the possibility of future talks with Moscow over arms control, missile deployments and ways to prevent military incidents between Russia and the West.

The decisions came at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, the first of its kind in over two years. The fact that the Russian delegation did not leave the talks and remained open to the prospect of future meetings, even though the West rejected key demands, was seen as a positive sign in a week of high-level meetings aimed at repelling a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants NATO to withdraw its troops and military equipment from Russia’s neighboring countries, which include Ukraine but also NATO allies such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Putin also wants the 30-nation military alliance to agree not to add any more members.

After the meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reiterated that some of Putin’s security demands are “simply non-starters.”

“We will not slam the door on NATO’s open-door policy,” she told reporters after nearly four hours of talks. “We will not agree that NATO cannot continue to expand.”

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

Russia denies new plans to attack its neighbor and accuses the West of endangering its security.

While noting that “escalation does not create optimal conditions for diplomacy, to put it mildly,” Sherman also expressed optimism, since Moscow did not reject the idea of ​​further talks.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, both center, on Wednesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels.Olivier Hoslet / Pool via AP

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

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

But Stoltenberg said any talks about Ukraine would not be easy. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. In the years since, more than 14,000 people have been killed there and Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as Donbass has been devastated.

“There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on this issue” over whether Ukraine could potentially join NATO, Stoltenberg told reporters after “very serious and direct exchanges” 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 arrangements and that NATO will continue to leave its door open to new members, dismissing a key Putin demand that the military organization halt its expansion.

“No one else has a say and Russia, of course, has no veto power,” he said.

For his part, Grushko described Wednesday’s talks as “serious, profound and substantial.” He gave a less optimistic assessment, stressing that NATO enlargement poses a threat to Russia’s security, but also did not rule out future talks with the alliance.

“It is absolutely imperative to end the open-door policy and offer Russia legally binding guarantees that rule out further NATO expansion eastward,” Grushko added. “The freedom to choose ways to ensure one’s security must not be exercised in a way that harms the legitimate security interests of others.”

The NATO-Russia Council was set up two decades ago, but full sessions were interrupted when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula seven years ago. Since then he has met only sporadically.

Among the Russian proposals rejected on Wednesday were a draft deal with NATO countries and an offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States.

The deal would have required NATO to halt all plans to join, not just with Ukraine, and to reduce its presence in countries near Russia’s border. In exchange, Russia would promise to limit its war games and end low-level hostilities like drone incidents.

Approval of such an agreement would mean NATO abandoning a key tenet of its founding treaty, which allows the Alliance to invite any willing European country that can contribute to security in the North Atlantic and fulfill the obligations of membership.

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

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