NATO and the United States have rejected key Russian security demands for easing tensions over 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. That Russia’s delegation did not walk out of the talks and remained open to the prospect of future meetings despite the West rebuffing central demands were seen as positive notes in a week of high-level meetings aimed at staving off a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin wants NATO to withdraw its troops and military equipment from countries neighbouring Russia, which includes Ukraine but also NATO allies like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Putin also wants the 30-nation military alliance to agree not to admit 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 that it has fresh plans to attack its neighbour and, in turn, accuses the West of threatening its security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired the meeting, said NATO nations and Russian envoys both “expressed the need to resume dialogue and to explore a schedule of future meetings.”
Stoltenberg said NATO is eager to discuss ways to prevent dangerous military incidents or accidents and reduce space and cyber-threats, as well as to talk about arms control and disarmament, including setting agreed limits on missile deployments.
But Stoltenberg said any talks about Ukraine would not be easy. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the years since, fighting there has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas.
“There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on this issue” of Ukraine potentially joining NATO, Stoltenberg told reporters after what he said was “a very serious and direct exchange” with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin.
“There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg added.
Stoltenberg underlined that Ukraine has the right to decide its future security arrangements and that NATO would continue to leave its door open to new members, rejecting a key demand by Putin that the military organisation halt its expansion.
“No one else has anything to say, and of course, Russia does not have a veto,” he said.
Grushko, for his part, described Wednesday’s talks as “serious, deep and substantive.” He offered a less optimistic assessment, emphasising that NATO’s expansion poses a threat to Russia’s security, but also did not rule out future discussions with the alliance.
“It’s absolutely imperative to end the policy of open doors and offer Russia legally binding guarantees precluding further NATO’s expansion eastward,” Grushko added.
“The freedom to choose ways of ensuring one’s security mustn’t be implemented in a way that infringes of legitimate security interests of others.”
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler said that allowing Russia to prevent Ukraine from one day joining NATO was something the alliance could not countenance.
“This 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, who seem to have agreed to at least continue with dialogue, ultimately neither of them seemed to have found any other common ground but they are rather stuck in their positions,” Butler added.
Speaking after the meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reaffirmed that some of Putin’s security demands “are simply non-starters”.
“We will not slam the door shut on NATO’s open-door policy,” she told reporters after almost four hours of talks. “We are not going to agree that NATO cannot expand any further.”
While noting that “escalation does not create optimum conditions for diplomacy, to say the least,” Sherman also expressed optimism, given that Moscow did not dismiss the idea of further talks.
Grushko later said Moscow would use military means to neutralise security threats if diplomacy proved insufficient.
Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Defence Minister Fomin as saying 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 meetings paused when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula seven years ago. It has met only sporadically since, the last time being in July 2019.
Among the Russian proposals rejected on Wednesday were a draft agreement with NATO countries and the offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States.
The agreement would have required NATO to halt all membership plans, not just with Ukraine, and scale down its presence in countries close to Russia’s borders. In exchange, Russia would pledge to limit its war games and to end low-level hostilities like aircraft-buzzing incidents.
Endorsing such an agreement would mean NATO abandoning a key tenet of its founding treaty, which holds the alliance can invite in any willing European country that can contribute to security in the North Atlantic area and fulfill the obligations of membership.