NATO said on Wednesday it was willing to talk to Russia about arms control and the deployment of missiles to ward off the risk of war in Europe, but Moscow said the situation was “very dangerous” and the way forward was unclear.
The gap between Russia’s position and that of the United States and its allies seemed as sharp as ever after four hours of talks in Brussels, the second attempt this week to calm a crisis provoked by the gathering of Russian troops near Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was willing to hold arms talks but would not allow Moscow to veto Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO one day – a core demand that Russia says it will not give in to.
“There is a real risk of a new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg told a news conference. “There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia,” he said. “Our differences will not be easy to bridge.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Moscow was ready to talk about weapons deployment and verification measures, but that they would not allow its proposals to be cherry-picked.
Risk of “incidents and conflicts”
At a lengthy press conference, Grushko said that Russia could not take seriously NATO’s claim to be a defensive alliance that does not pose a threat to it, and said it would respond symmetrically to any attempt to restrict or intimidate it.
“If there is a search for vulnerabilities in the Russian defense system, then there will also be a search for vulnerabilities in NATO,” he said.
“This is not our choice, but there will be no other way if we fail to reverse the current very dangerous course of events.”
Grushko later said that Moscow would use military means to neutralize security threats if diplomacy proved inadequate.
Interfax news agency quoted Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin as saying that NATO’s’ disregard “of Russian security proposals created the risk of” incidents and conflicts “.
This week’s talks – which begin with a meeting between Russia and the United States in Geneva on Monday and will continue on Thursday in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – come at one of the most troubling moments in East-West relations since the cold the war.
Russia denies plans to invade Ukraine but says it needs a series of guarantees for its own security, including a halt to further NATO expansion and the withdrawal of alliance forces from Central and Eastern European nations that joined it after 1997.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reiterated that these demands were “non-starters”.
Sherman told reporters that it was difficult to understand why a nuclear-armed Russia felt threatened by its much smaller neighbor and why it conducted live-fire exercises near its border with Ukraine.
“Is this about invasion? Is this about intimidation? Is this about trying to be subversive? I do not know, but it is not favorable to come to diplomatic solutions,” she said.
Russia had not made a commitment to de-escalate, she said, but it had not said it would not.
Despite the gap in positions, Stoltenberg said it was positive that all 30 NATO allies and Russia had “sat around the same table and engaged on key issues”.
Grushko said he could not recall such a sharp and sincere discussion with NATO. He said progress was possible, but there were some areas where Russia could not take a step back.
He said Moscow wanted written answers from NATO to its proposals and to hear from the alliance how it would implement them or – if not – why it could not.