US, NATO provide ‘written responses’ to Russia as Ukraine tensions mount

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference following bilateral talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on soaring tensions over Ukraine, in Geneva, Switzerland, 21 January 2022. [EPA-EFE/MARTIAL TREZZINI]

Both US and NATO on Wednesday (26 January) said they had set out a diplomatic path to address sweeping Russian demands in Eastern Europe, as Russia intensified its military build-up near Ukraine with new drills.

Last December, Russia issued demands in the form of draft security pacts to NATO and the West with bold ultimatums on security ‘guarantees’.

Those demanded NATO pull back troops from Eastern Europe and shut NATO’s door for future members, including Ukraine, Georgia and Nordic countries, while invoking Russian ‘spheres of influence’.

The US written response was delivered in person by its ambassador in Moscow on Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed.

In it, the US repeated its commitment to upholding NATO’s “open-door” policy while offering a “principled and pragmatic evaluation” of the Kremlin’s concerns, he said.

In parallel, and in what was said to be a concerted effort, NATO delivered its own written response to a separate set of demands that the Russians had made to the military alliance.

The contents of the Western responses were not made public.

Western officials have called Russia’s demands ‘non-starters’ and have been clear they don’t intend to negotiate over them.

“Putting things in writing is (…) a good way to make sure we’re as precise as possible, and the Russians understand our positions, our ideas, as clearly as possible. Right now, the document is with them and the ball is in their court,” Blinken told reporters.

He also said the document mentioned areas where the two countries “may be able to find common ground,” including arms control, nuclear treaties and transparency measures over military exercises.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday the alliance was ready to hear Moscow’s concerns but stressed the West would have his own demands.

This would especially include Russia withdrawing its military forces in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which he said were stationed in those countries “without consent.”

“What we have made clear is that we will not compromise on some core principles,” he said on the question of Ukraine’s future membership. “This is about respecting nations and their right to choose their own path.”

“We call on Russia once again to immediately de-escalate the situation. NATO firmly believes that tensions and disagreements must be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

Stoltenberg also repeated his call for Moscow and NATO to restore diplomatic channels between the alliance and Russia and re-establish their respective offices in Brussels and Moscow, which Russia had shut down.

Asked how much time Russia would need to study NATO’s response, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told Interfax news agency: “We will read it. Study it. The partners studied our project for almost a month and a half.”

Whether President Vladimir Putin is prepared to accept Washington and its allies’ agenda will also determine the next phase of the tensions over Ukraine.

Currently, Moscow has massed around 127,000 troops near the border with Ukraine while denying it plans to invade the country. Russia also staged new military drills on land and on the Black Sea on Wednesday and moved more paratroopers and fighter jets to Belarus, north of Ukraine, for what it describes as joint exercises there next month.

Stoltenberg also acknowledged that the risk of conflict remained serious but said allies were holding out hope Russia would choose a diplomatic path.

“There’s no secret that we are far apart, and there are serious differences between NATO and Russia,” he said.

NATO has put its forces on standby and reinforced Eastern Europe with more weapons, ships and fighter jets, while the US, UK and other European countries are providing weapons to help Ukraine defend against Russia’s threat.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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