After four hours of talks with Russia, Nato leaders said that they were willing to engage in serious diplomacy with Moscow over arms control and missile deployments in Europe, but they rejected outright Moscow’s demands that the alliance stop enlargement, pull back its forces from member states bordering Russia, and guarantee that Ukraine will never join.
“Significant differences” remained between Nato and Russia, and “our differences will not be easy to bridge”, Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said after the meeting.
“There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg said – conflict that would carry severe economic and other costs to Moscow, he added, and would bring about new military deployments in member states close to Russia.
The United States and its Nato and European Union allies are pressing Russian president Vladimir Putin to abandon any further invasion of Ukraine, pull back his troops, and engage in reciprocal diplomacy on Russia’s security concerns – and Nato’s.
Stoltenberg said that Nato allies had urged Russia to “immediately de-escalate the situation in Ukraine”, where close to 100,000 Russian troops have massed near the borders, and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours. Russian representatives did not commit to pulling back the troops, nor did they reject the demand, officials said.
Nato allies reaffirmed their refusal to accept Russian demands to stop further enlargement with countries that wished to join the alliance, and to withdraw all allied troops from Nato members bordering Russia. Those demands were repeated after the talks by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, a former permanent representative to Nato from 2012 to 2018.
“This is a principled position, and we will not move from it,” he said. But he called the meeting “rather honest, direct, deep and comprehensive”, adding: “But at the same time, it showed a great amount of divergence on fundamental questions.”
“This was a heart-to-heart discussion,” Grushko said. “I think we were able to communicate to the members of the alliance that the situation is becoming unbearable.” It was a chance to remind Nato that Russia, too, may have a say in the future of European security, which could “carry risks”, Grushko said. “We support peaceful solutions based on balance,” he added.
Grushko’s comments indicate that Russia, for now, is not closing the door to further diplomacy, even though it has not committed to talks beyond this week. Russian officials said earlier this week that they would wait until the end of a full week of talks – which began with an informal dinner in Geneva last Sunday and wrapped up on Thursday in Vienna – before making a decision on how to continue.
Russian officials deny that the country is planning to invade Ukraine, but Putin has warned of an unspecified “military-technical” response if the West does not agree to Russia’s demands. Grushko reiterated that warning, without adding clarity to it.
“If Nato moves on to a policy of containment, then there will be a policy of counter-containment from our side,” Grushko said. “If there is deterrence, there will be counter-deterrence.”
Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state who led the US delegation to the talks, called some of Russia’s demands “simply non-starters” and emphasized Nato’s offers to Moscow for diplomacy.
Briefing reporters in Brussels, Sherman said that Nato officials laid out for the Russians areas “where we can work together and make real progress,” including on arms control, missile deployments, risk reduction and greater transparency in military exercises.
Stoltenberg said that Nato allies offered Russia a series of further meetings on wider issues of European security, including the issues Sherman raised. But while the Russian delegation was generally positive, he said, they would not or could not commit to a new meeting. That is another indication that even Russia’s top diplomats may not know what Putin’s intentions really are.
Sherman said that she hoped that after this long week of discussions with top Russian representatives, which continues on Thursday in Vienna, that they “will return to Moscow and that they will brief the president of Russia, and that they will all appreciate and understand, and the president of Russia will agree, that diplomacy is the correct path.”
She said the decision was up to Putin. “If Russia walks away,” she said, it would be “quite apparent that they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy at all.”
Washington and its allies promise “severe costs and consequences” if Russia further invades Ukraine, imposing “a severe price on Russia’s economy and financial system,” Sherman said.
Moscow’s choice will be important for the fate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, meant to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany in the future, Sherman repeated. “From our perspective, it’s very hard to see gas flowing through the pipeline or for it to become operational if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine.”
The pipeline, which is not yet operational, is a Russian geopolitical project that undermines the security of a “significant part of the Euro-Atlantic community,” she said.
The meeting at Nato’s Brussels headquarters was the second stop in a diplomatic roadshow focused on the Kremlin, after talks in Geneva on Monday between Russian and American officials. The meeting on Thursday in Vienna with the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Ukraine, will take place at a lower diplomatic level — with ambassadors rather than foreign ministers and other top officials.
If Russia decides to pursue its aims diplomatically rather than go to war again in Ukraine, some of the negotiations on future European security will take place under the auspices of the OSCE.
The Russian delegation at Nato was led by Grushko and the deputy defense minister, Alexander Fomin. They spoke at length at the start of the meeting, laying out Russia’s demands and concerns. In the subsequent exchanges, all 30 Nato members spoke with what Sherman called “amazing unity” on Nato’s core values, which include its openness to any country that wishes to join and qualifies to do so.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, Grushko told reporters that “the moment of truth in our relationship with the alliance is arriving,” according to Russian news agencies.
“This wasn’t an easy discussion, but that is exactly why this meeting was so important,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Nato allies and Russia had “a very serious and direct exchange on the situation in and around Ukraine, and implications for European security.”
The United States and its Nato allies hope that Putin will decide to negotiate, as he is now confronted with threats of punishing economic sanctions and new deployments in Nato allies bordering Russia, like Poland, the Baltic countries and Turkey.
The issue of new deployments is a live discussion, the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told Reuters. “Of course, we are discussing with our allies to increase their presence here to act as a deterrent,” she said. “If you look at the map, the Baltic states are a Nato peninsula and therefore we have our worries.”
Polish officials also seemed pleased with the American and Nato responses to Moscow’s demands. “Our position is clear,” Lukasz Jasina, the spokesman for Poland’s foreign minister, said. “Only Nato and member countries decide about Nato matters. And no one else.”
Russia is a neighbor but cannot be allowed to pressure others, said Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Marcin Przydacz. “What Russia has left is intimidation, but as this smaller partner, with a diminishing role in the world, the argument that ‘if you do not listen to us, we will beat the smaller colleague’ cannot be taken into account.”
After Monday’s talks, Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian side, warned that if the West did not agree to Russia’s demands to pull back Nato’s footprint in Eastern Europe and reject any future membership for Ukraine, it would face unspecified consequences that would put the “security of the whole European continent” at risk.
The Americans and Russians say that after this week, they will discuss whether to keep talking.
That is, unless Putin decides to argue that Washington and its allies do not take Russia’s demands seriously — and chooses to use this week as a pretext to go to war.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.