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NATO allies and Russia ended nearly four hours of security talks on Wednesday in a standoff, with the West flatly rejecting Moscow’s demands for no further expansion of alliance membership and the withdrawal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe.
“We can discuss many issues but we cannot discuss some core principles,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference following the meeting.
He said that allies were adamant they would not accede to Russia’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia never join the alliance, nor would they allow Moscow to dictate where allied countries choose to position their forces.
During the talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the NATO side proposed a series of additional meetings, but the Russians neither accepted nor rejected the offer, Stoltenberg said.
The inconclusive outcome suggested that after Wednesday’s meeting, and an initial eight hours of bilateral talks with the U.S. in Geneva on Monday, Russian diplomats now need to return home to receive further instructions from President Vladimir Putin.
The meetings this week, which will be followed by a third gathering Thursday in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, were called in response to Russia’s mobilization of 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, and threats by Russia of a potential military strike if its security demands are not met.
The current impasse means a cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over Ukraine, which has been a target of Russian aggression since the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and remains embroiled in a war with separatists, armed and financed by Russia, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass.
“There is a real risk of a new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg said. “We are clear-eyed. So we also conveyed a message to Russia that if they use military force there will be severe consequences; economic sanctions; political sanctions.”
In December, with the U.S. warning of a potentially imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Kremlin put forward two draft treaties that Western officials and diplomats said would fundamentally rewrite the security architecture of Europe.
Among other demands, Russia is insisting that NATO effectively rewind the clock to 1997 before it admitted many new countries from the former eastern bloc, including Poland.
Stoltenberg, at his news conference, said that Russia put those two proposed treaties on the table during Wednesday’s meeting, which was the first gathering of the NATO-Russia Council in more than two years.
The secretary-general said allies had demanded that Russia deescalate the situation on the border by pulling back its forces but that Russian diplomats made no commitment to do so.
Other officials and diplomats said that Russia used the session in part to air a litany of old grievances, including over NATO’s involvement in the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and also its air bombing campaign in Libya in 2011 that contributed to the death of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Stoltenberg said that NATO allies from the former Yugoslavia had pushed back directly against the Russian allegations.
At her own news conference at NATO headquarters, the lead U.S. official in the talks, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said that allies demonstrated complete unity in confronting Russia.
She called the meeting a “remarkable expression of the power of diplomacy” and said: “Thirty sovereign nations spoke separately — NATO allies — and also spoke as one. The NATO allies spoke in complete unity in support of a set of critical international principles — that all countries must be able to choose their own foreign policy orientation, that sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacrosanct.”
Sherman said Russian diplomats voiced concerns about their own country’s security, but that some of those concerns seemed to defy reality. Citing Russia’s capabilities as a major nuclear power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, she said: “They are a powerful country. The fact that they feel threatened by Ukraine … is hard to understand.”