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U.S., NATO send written responses to Russia on its demands over Ukraine crisis

Journalists raise their hands as Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about Russia and Ukraine during a briefing at the State Department on Jan. 26. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters)
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A previous version of this article said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of providing Ukraine with “nuclear” arms, based on quotes from Russian news agencies Tass and Interfax. Later, an official transcript of Lavrov's remarks said he used the term "lethal" weapons. This article has been corrected.

MOSCOW — The United States and NATO on Wednesday delivered written responses to the Kremlin’s demands for security guarantees that would curtail the military alliance’s further expansion and activities in Eastern Europe, as tensions continued to escalate over Russia’s buildup along its borders with Ukraine.

The responses, which NATO sent to the Russian Embassy in Brussels and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan hand-delivered to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, set “out a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters. Both he and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said their responses — which Moscow had demanded be put in writing — were coordinated with Ukraine and each other and strongly affirmed NATO’s commitment to an open-door policy for nations that want to join.

“NATO’s door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment,” Blinken said, rejecting Moscow’s demand that Ukraine, Georgia and other countries in the post-Soviet space be permanently barred from joining the alliance.

Blinken said the U.S. proposal suggested ways to improve “reciprocal transparency” between Russia and the West regarding “force posture in Ukraine” and military exercises conducted in the region, as well as the placement of missile systems in Europe. It also suggested steps forward on arms control, such as “our interest in a follow-on agreement to the New START treaty that covers all nuclear weapons,” he said. Last year, the Biden administration agreed to extend New START until February 2026.

On a Jan. 26 train ride from Kyiv to Kharkiv, in the east of the country, Ukrainians gave voice to their anxiety over a possible conflict with Russia. (Video: Whitney Shefte, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted publicly Wednesday to the U.S. and NATO documents.

Speaking in Brussels, Stoltenberg said that the military alliance’s document called on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, where Russia either has troops or backs separatist forces. The alliance also proposed “practical measures” including mutual briefings on military exercises and expressed a desire for Russia and NATO to “reestablish our respective offices in NATO and Brussels.” Russia’s decision last year to “cut diplomatic ties with NATO … makes our dialogue more difficult,” he noted.

The initial response to the proposals from some influential lawmakers in Russia was one of scorn. Russian parliament member Vladimir Dzhabarov, a senior figure on the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, said Russia had made its red lines regarding NATO’s expansion clear, and the United States’ refusal to accept them had freed Russia to do whatever it saw as necessary. “Now our hands are untied, and we can do as we want,” he told the Russian news agency Interfax.

Predictions about the future direction of the crisis remained grim, even as the Biden administration reiterates that it believes a diplomatic solution is still possible. Earlier on Wednesday, Blinken’s top deputy, Wendy R. Sherman, said the United States sees “every indication that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is going to use military force sometime” soon. She said it was likely between “now and the middle of February,” while speaking in an online conversation with the Estonian president that was hosted by the Yalta European Strategy, a forum to discuss the future of Ukraine and Europe.

Stoltenberg told reporters that NATO had observed Russia “deploying thousands of combat troops and hundreds of aircraft ... and a lot of other very advanced capabilities” to Belarus, a Russian-allied country bordering Ukraine to the north. “These are highly capable combat troops, and there is no transparency on these deployments,” Stoltenberg warned, suggesting that Russia was in the process of integrating its forces with those of Belarus “under the disguise” of military exercises.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow “would not sit idly by” as the West supplies Kyiv with lethal weapons, after Ukraine took delivery Tuesday of 79 tons of arms, including U.S. antitank missiles, intended for self-defense.

Speaking to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, Lavrov said: “It would suffice to mention the increasingly provocative exercises held near our borders, the drawing of the Kyiv regime into the NATO orbit, its supply with lethal weapons, and the push for its direct provocations against the Russian Federation,” according to an official transcript of his remarks.

Blinken is expected to speak with Lavrov again in the coming days following a meeting between the two in Geneva this past Friday. Blinken has requested that the Russians not release the U.S. and NATO written responses in the meantime.

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In Paris, four-way talks between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine ended on Wednesday without a breakthrough, despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to secure a diplomatic solution. Macron is expected to offer his own ideas for de-escalating the crisis directly to Putin during a planned phone call this Friday, officials in Paris said.

Dmitry Kozak, the Russian representative to the Paris summit, indicated that the four parties would reconvene in Berlin in two weeks.

These countries are withdrawing embassy staffers from Ukraine amid growing fears of an invasion by Russia

The Paris talks aim to revive the long-standing but stalled peace effort to implement the 2015 Minsk peace agreement and resolve an eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of breaching the Minsk deal, which has failed to end the war over two separatist Russian-backed areas in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The conflict has raged since 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, claiming more than 13,000 lives.

Kozak said after Wednesday’s meeting that all four parties had agreed that a cease-fire must be observed “unconditionally,” but similar commitments in the past have done little to stop hostilities.

Tara Varma, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the fact that talks are taking place marks “a step forward.” But the entrenched differences between Russia and Ukraine make a swift breakthrough unlikely, a position complicated by Russia’s insistence that the war is an internal Ukrainian conflict, to which Moscow is not a party.

As Ukraine invasion looms, Europe fears Kremlin will cut off its gas supply

The debate over how to restrain Russia has been complicated by the fact that some European countries, particularly those with closer ties to Russia, seem reluctant to confront the Kremlin too directly. Moscow is a key gas supplier to Europe, and the continent is also home to banks, energy firms and other companies with deep financial ties to Russia.

Since early December, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that Russia was planning a massive military invasion of Ukraine. Here’s why Moscow would do that. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Those relationships have complicated discussion of sanctions among Western allies should Moscow attack Ukraine. Though officials have not said what might be included in a sanctions package, the more controversial targets would be the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany when it is activated, or cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial system that enables transfers between banks around the world.

Despite some of the differences, Europe’s approach to the Ukraine crisis has been far more united than Russia probably anticipated, Varma said.

“The level of consultation has never been so strong,” she said. “I don’t think Russia takes Europe seriously when it comes to military issues, and they thought that it would be very easy to destabilize the continent.”

U.S. officials have signaled that the Biden administration is preparing for ways to keep Europe supplied with natural gas, should Russia respond to sanctions or other Western measures by cutting off Europe’s supply.

One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said the administration is “working with countries and companies around the world to ensure the security of supply and to mitigate against price shocks affecting both the American people and the global economy.”

Biden plans to host Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, one of the world’s largest exporters of liquefied natural gas, at the White House on Monday. The pair are set to discuss “ensuring the stability of global energy supplies” and channeling Qatari gas to Europe, the administration said.

Demirjian reported from Washington, Pietsch from Seoul and Noack from Paris. Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Perry Stein in Brussels, Loveday Morris in Berlin, and John Hudson and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.