NATO-Russia talks at deadlock amid ‘real risk’ of Ukraine war | NATO News
NATO and the United States have dismissed key Russian security calls for a détente in Ukraine, but left open the possibility of future talks with Moscow on 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 on Wednesday, the first of its kind in more than 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.
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.
Russia has denied it has any new plans to attack its neighbor, in return accusing the West of threatening its security.
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 eager to discuss ways to prevent dangerous military incidents or casualties 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 separatists 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 might join NATO, Stoltenberg told reporters after “very serious and direct exchanges” with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander formin.
“There is a real risk of new armed conflicts in Europe,” Stoltenberg added.
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.”
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler said the alliance could not accept allowing Russia to one day prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
“That is the fundamental problem of this meeting,” she said.
“And it was made very clear by Stoltenberg that although you have two sides, Russia and NATO, which seem to have agreed to at least continue the dialogue, ultimately neither of them seems to have found any other common ground, but they are quite deadlocked their positions,” Butler added.
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.”
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.
Grushko later said Moscow would use military force to neutralize security threats if diplomacy proved inadequate.
The Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Fomin as saying that NATO’s “ignoring” of Russian security proposals created the risk of “incidents and conflicts”.
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 it has only met sporadically, most recently in July 2019.
Russian proposals rejected on Wednesday included 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.