U.S., NATO offer no concessions in response to Russian demands on Ukraine
U.S., NATO worried about estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine's borders
The Biden administration and NATO told Russia on Wednesday there will be no U.S. or NATO concessions on Moscow's main demands to resolve the crisis over Ukraine.
In separate written responses delivered to the Russians, the U.S. and NATO held firm to the open-door policy for membership, rejected a demand to permanently ban Ukraine from joining the alliance, and said allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are non-negotiable.
"There is no change, there will be no change," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
U.S. and European response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine is also not up for negotiation, he said, repeating the mantra that any such incursion would be met with massive consequences and severe economic costs.
The responses were not unexpected and mirrored what senior officials have said for weeks. Nonetheless, Russia's eventual reaction could determine whether Europe will again be plunged into war.
Warning of 'retaliatory measures'
There was no immediate response from Russia but officials have warned that Moscow would quickly take "retaliatory measures" if the U.S. and its allies reject its demands.
Seeking possible off-ramps that would allow Russia to withdraw the estimated 100,000 troops it has deployed near Ukraine's border without appearing to have lost a battle of wills, the U.S. response outlined areas in which some of Russia's concerns might be addressed provided it de-escalates tensions with Ukraine.
Blinken said Russia would not be surprised by the contents of the American document that U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered to the Russian foreign ministry Wednesday.
"All told it sets out a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it," he said.
Blinken said he hoped to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the response in the coming days. But he stressed that the decision about pursuing diplomacy or conflict rests with Russia and, more specifically, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Shortly after Blinken spoke, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the alliance had sent a separate reply to Russia with an offer to improve communications, examine ways to avoid military incidents or accidents, and discuss arms control. But, like Blinken, he rejected any attempt to halt membership.
"We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliance, and security in Europe and North America rest," Stoltenberg said. "This is about respecting nations and their right to choose their own path."
While flatly refusing to consider any changes to NATO's open-door policy, its relationship with non-ally Ukraine, or allied troop and military deployments in Eastern Europe, Blinken said the U.S. is open to other ideas to ease Russia's stated concerns.
The U.S. proposals, echoed in the NATO document, include the potential for negotiations over offensive missile placements and military exercises in Eastern Europe as well as broad arms control agreements as long as Russia withdraws its troops from the Ukrainian border and agrees to halt inflammatory rhetoric designed to deepen divisions and discord among the allies and within Ukraine itself.
Moscow has demanded guarantees that NATO will never admit Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as members and that the alliance will roll back troop deployments in former Soviet bloc nations. Some of these, like the membership pledge, are nonstarters for the U.S. and its allies, creating a seemingly intractable stalemate that many fear will only end in war.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has plans to attack Ukraine, but the U.S. and NATO are worried about Russia massing its troops near the border and conducting a series of sweeping military manoeuvres.
Speaking to Russian lawmakers on Wednesday before the U.S. and NATO responses were delivered, Lavrov said he and other top officials will advise Putin on next steps.
Talks to continue with Ukraine, France and Germany
In another development, envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met for more than five hours in Paris on Wednesday over the long-running conflict in the eastern part of the country between Moscow-backed separatists.
Although there was no breakthrough, they promised to meet for new talks in two weeks in Berlin.
The French president's office said in a statement after the talks that the parties support "unconditional respect" for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
The talks focused on the 2015 Minsk peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict, and the statement didn't address the current concerns about a Russian invasion.
"Those are different issues, and we didn't discuss it," said Kremlin envoy Dmitry Kozak.
Ukrainian representative Andriy Yermak said the meeting marked the first real advance in talks since December 2019 and that talks organized by the French and Germans were crucial "even when things were not so tense, and now we know it more than ever."