Russia and NATO meet as Moscow and Washington harden stances on Ukraine

Talks between NATO and Russia take place in Brussels on Wednesday, amid pessimism over progress following uncompromising stands taken by Moscow and Washington over tensions in eastern Europe.

Against the background of a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, the US rebuffed a demand to halt NATO expansion and the Kremlin said it would quickly see whether it was worthwhile even to keep negotiating.

At Russia-US talks in Geneva on Monday, Moscow insisted on guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations and demanded to roll back the military alliance’s deployments in eastern Europe. The US firmly rejected the demands as a nonstarter.

“We will not allow anyone to slam NATO’s open-door policy shut,” said US ambassador Julianne Smith, the country’s envoy to the alliance, setting a tough tone for the next talks with Moscow and ruling out any concessions on the alliance’s eastward expansion.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the Geneva talks as “open, comprehensive and direct,” but emphasised that Moscow wants quick results. ”We see no significant reason for optimism,” he told reporters.

Peskov said Wednesday’s Russia-NATO talks, and an OSCE meeting in Vienna on Thursday would show whether further negotiations are worthwhile.

“It will become clear in what direction and how to proceed and if it makes sense,” he said. “We absolutely wouldn’t accept dragging this process out endlessly”.

Smith said “not a single ally inside the NATO alliance is willing to budge or negotiate anything as it relates to NATO’s open-door policy.”

“We stand firm in pushing back on security proposals that are simply nonstarters,” she told reporters. “There’s widespread unity and consensus across the alliance on the challenge that sits before us.”

The US estimates Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine, a buildup that has stoked fears of an invasion.

Moscow says it has no plans to attack and rejects Washington’s demand to pull back its forces, saying it has the right to deploy them wherever necessary.

President Vladimir Putin has warned that the Kremlin would take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the US and its allies don’t meet its demands.

He spoke with members of his Security Council, saying he wanted to discuss unspecified issues related to security and infrastructure in border areas.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was “too early to tell whether the Russians are serious about the path to diplomacy or not,” or whether they will use the talks as a “pretext to claim that diplomacy couldn’t possibly work” and move forward with an invasion.

Psaki sidestepped questions about whether the US agreed the Geneva talks did not provide reasons for greater optimism.

She noted, however, that they had included discussions about the placement of missiles in Europe and reciprocal limits on military exercises.

“There is a range of discussions that can be a part of a diplomatic path, but ultimately it’s up to the Russians to determine about whether they’re going to take a serious approach,” Psaki said.

Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation in Geneva, said after the meeting that it would be hard to make any progress on other issues if the US and its allies stonewall Russia’s demand for guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion.

The US and its allies reject the demand for NATO not to admit new members, emphasising that a key alliance principle is that membership is open to any qualifying country and no outsiders have veto power.

But Washington and NATO also say they are ready to discuss arms control, confidence-building measures, greater transparency, and risk reduction if Russia takes a constructive stance.

US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman said she briefed the North Atlantic Council on her talks in Geneva.

“The United States is committed to working in lockstep with our allies and partners to urge de-escalation and respond to the security crisis caused by Russia,” she tweeted.

The US warned that Russia will face unprecedented sanctions if it attacks Ukraine.

Amid the tensions, the Russian military said 3,000 troops were taking part in drills at firing ranges in the Voronezh, Belgorod, Bryansk, and Smolensk regions near Ukraine.

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s the Crimean Peninsula after the ouster of its Moscow-friendly leader and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s east, where more than seven years of fighting has killed over 14,000 people.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany has helped end large-scale battles, but frequent skirmishes have continued and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have failed.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in Kyiv with French and German officials on prospects for another meeting of the leaders of the three countries and Russia, saying he wanted “substantive talks on ending the conflict”.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said he spoke with US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Tuesday, saying Kyiv and Washington “remain united in seeking de-escalation through diplomacy and strength”.

AP

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