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Stark differences over Ukraine overshadow high-stakes Russia-NATO talks

From left: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Russia's deputy defense minister, Col. Gen. Alexander Fomin, confer ahead of a NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels on Jan. 12. (Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — NATO and Russian diplomats traded sometimes-incompatible demands over Ukraine at a meeting here Wednesday, an indication of the challenges in finding a peaceful resolution to the standoff over Moscow’s military buildup along the border with its neighbor.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there was no breakthrough in the meeting of a special Russia-NATO forum, the first of its kind since 2019, on the central impasse over Russia’s demand that Ukraine and other former Soviet states be barred from joining the Western military alliance.

The talks come as the deployment of some 100,000 Russian troops along the country’s border with Ukraine stokes fears about whether President Vladimir Putin is preparing to launch a new attack, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s ongoing stoking of a separatist conflict in Ukraine’s east.

Officials said that all 30 NATO members voiced support in the nearly four-hour meeting for the bloc’s “open door” policy, which would admit Ukraine or Georgia if they meet entry requirements, a proposition that Moscow says poses a grave threat to Russian security.

Stoltenberg said there was no Russian commitment to subsequent talks but voiced hope that, following consultations in Moscow, Putin would authorize discussions on steps that Western officials have proposed in lieu of limits to NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe. “This is not an easy discussion,” he told reporters after the meeting. “NATO allies are clear-eyed about the prospects for progress.”

Russia threatens to scuttle talks with U.S. if there is no swift acceptance of its security demands

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who headed the U.S. delegation, called on Russia to pull back its forces and consider the Biden administration’s compromise offer, which would include joint Western and Russian measures on arms control and military exercises.

She said the meeting “ended with a sober challenge from the NATO allies to Russia.”

“There is plenty to work on, where we have places where we can enhance mutual security. There are some places we cannot,” Sherman said in separate remarks to reporters. “And everyone, Russia, most of all, will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext” for potential military action, she said.

“They may not even know yet,” she added.

In his own media briefing in Brussels, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Moscow would make a decision whether to continue the dialogue only after it reviews written NATO responses to a series of proposals it made last month. Russia has also demanded a halt to alliance military activity in Ukraine and Georgia and any future activity in other parts of the post-Soviet space — something NATO nations have ruled out.

Grushko said Russia’s demands were “crystal clear, they are interdependent and they can’t be considered as a pastry out of which something can be carved out, some little raisins.”

He described guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward as an “absolute imperative” and accused NATO of “trying to gain supremacy in all areas and in all possible theaters of war.”

“If the approach will be intimidation, we will pursue counter-intimidation,” he said.

The Russian delegation equally appeared cool to Stoltenberg’s suggestion that NATO and Russia could repair a diplomatic rift by reopening respective missions in Moscow and Brussels that were shuttered last fall.

The Brussels meeting marks the second in a series of high-level U.S.-Russian encounters this week. On Sunday and Monday, Sherman held bilateral talks with Russian officials in Geneva. On Thursday, U.S. and Russian diplomats will take part in a meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, said discussions would not be “quick or easy” but were worthwhile, even if no one can predict Putin’s actions.

“Strategic discussions are better than war and can achieve better outcomes for everyone than a war. It’s a massive diplomatic undertaking,” Greene said. “Is it possible that those positions will change over time? Yeah, that’s why we talk.”

NATO nations have long called for Russia to remove its forces from areas of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and accused it of using economic pressure, cyberattacks and disinformation against rivals.

While the Biden administration, like NATO and the European Union, has promised to unleash severe economic consequences if Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine, potentially including measures designed to cut off Russia’s access to the global financial system, U.S. officials say there are no signs Putin is drawing forces back from the border with Ukraine.

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 Russian troops in southern Russia began military exercises. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking Wednesday, denied any relationship between the exercises and the NATO-Russia talks.

Sherman said that holding live-fire exercises while crisis talks were occurring was “not conducive to getting to a diplomatic solution.”

“So Russia has a choice to make,” she said.

Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said the United States should drop its “aggressive rhetoric of foreign expansion.”

He said at Wednesday’s NATO-Russia meeting that Moscow wants “a substantive discussion of the Russian documents that must be adopted as soon as possible in order to stabilize the situation in Europe.”

Russia-U.S. talks hit impasse over NATO expansion as Moscow denies plans to invade Ukraine

Russia’s grievances hark back to the 1990s, when NATO began a series of expansions by accepting former Warsaw Pact and former Soviet nations.

Putin has cited the deployment of defensive missiles in Romania and Poland as a threat. Russian demands include a call for the removal of all NATO military infrastructure installed in Eastern European countries after 1997, effectively attempting to rework the consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, which left Russia weakened for years.

While U.S. officials have cited the 2008 NATO declaration that admitting Ukraine and Georgia was a question of “not whether but when,” some NATO nations have voiced reservations about Ukraine’s admission.

But a European official who attended the meeting said the bloc was united in Brussels.

“In this format, no one was going to discuss how much risk the alliance should accept to keep the "open-door policy alive,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive talks. “Allies just wouldn’t do that in front of the Russians.”

Dixon reported from Belgrade, Serbia, and Ryan and Sonne from Washington. John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima in Washington and Maria Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.

Read more:

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Read more:

Russia’s rifts with the West keep growing. How did we get here?

Ahead of talks, U.S. again warns Putin of ‘massive consequences’ if Russia invades Ukraine