The gap between NATO and Russia is widening. After the first meeting between the two actors in more than two years, the temperature is still very high. Both sides are in serious conflict and warn of a dangerous escalation of military tension around Ukraine. “There is a real risk of an armed conflict in Europe if Russia uses force,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed at the end of the meeting, after rejecting Moscow’s demand to stop the expansion of the Alliance and the withdrawal of weapons to the borders of 1997. Western sources warn that if diplomatic contacts fail and Russian President Vladimir Putin attacks Ukraine, it will be “before the first act of a new Cold War”.
“We are at a defining moment for European security,” Stoltenberg bluntly clarified as soon as he began his appearance. And it is “definitive”, in his opinion and in that of the 30 allied countries that make up NATO, because what Russia demands to stop the escalation of tension on its border with Ukraine supposes a return to the rules that governed foreign policy during the Cold War. “Saying ‘you can’t join NATO because you’re too close to Russia’ would create an area of influence. Those of us who come from small countries (Stoltenberg is Norwegian) close to Russia know that this is dangerous”, he argued to explain that the Atlantic Alliance will maintain its open-door policy to those states that want to join.
“Countries have the right to decide their path”, the secretary general has riveted, that is, to enter NATO if they so wish, something that Ukraine already requested in 2008. “Not allowing it is to return to the parameters of the spheres of influence”, he stressed, an idea that they have not stopped repeating in Brussels in recent weeks to avoid the return of a model of international relations like those of the past.
Even before the meeting began, sources from the allied military organization have indicated that the positions were very far apart “because Putin’s proposals are unacceptable.” This has been verified in the meeting: “difficult”, “frank”, “necessary, “open”, according to the adjectives used by Stoltenberg. At the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, where the Russian Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Aleksandr Grushkó, and of Defense, Colonel Aleksandr Fomin, have attended, they try to convey the idea that just sitting at the same negotiating table is “important and useful”, but here ends all the positive message that the allies can convey. Because at this point they begin to point out all the barriers that Moscow puts up to start a “good faith” dialogue.
The word blackmail does not appear directly, but the definitions given by the consulted sources of the current situation are very similar. “Basically, Putin wants a formal and irreversible commitment that there will be no expansion of NATO to the East, that there will be no Western missiles in Ukraine, that the Alliance’s military structures will not be extended, and that allies from the old Soviet bloc will become like second class”, summarizes a senior community official on Moscow’s proposals. And all this is something that the allies are not willing to go through, and they have told Moscow so.
“Russia is the aggressor and the one who has used force against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg warned, emphasizing that it is the Putin regime that is responsible for the conflict. The Norwegian has deepened the idea when he has detailed that there are Russian soldiers in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine against the will of these countries and has demanded that Moscow remove its troops and “respect the integrity of these countries”.
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Beyond what was heard this Wednesday at the meeting, the United States and its allies are also not very clear about Moscow’s final intentions. “There has been no Russian commitment to lower the tension nor has it been said that there will be. […] They will have to decide if it is security, in which case they should compromise, or if this was all a pretext. And they may not know it yet, ”admitted the US Undersecretary of State, Wendy Sherman, at the end.
“It is not clear how a way out can be found,” acknowledges a European source. “Putin has put a lot of emphasis, and in a public way, on the need to guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO, and that is something that neither Kiev nor the Alliance will admit is taken for granted,” the same source predicts.
For his part, Grushkó declared at the end of Wednesday’s meeting that the de-escalation around Ukraine “is possible”, but only if the 2015 pacts are fulfilled, which contemplate the withdrawal of foreign troops from Donbas. “If the Minsk Agreements are fulfilled, there will be no threat to the security or territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said the senior official before stating that for Russia to end its deployment, NATO “must stop the delivery arms to Ukraine and withdraw its instructors, officers and soldiers,” reports Javier G. Cuesta. Grushkó has also warned that the Kremlin will take action against any action by the Atlantic Alliance that goes against Russian interests. “A future deterioration of the situation can lead to the most unpredictable and severe consequences for European security,” stressed the diplomat, who did affirm that Moscow is willing to negotiate on the deployment of offensive weapons and their verification mechanisms.
The dialogue forum between Russia and NATO has lost a lot of strength since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. There were subsequent meetings, but since 2019 there has been no meeting. That he has recovered in these circumstances is an element that they try to highlight. The appointment comes at the meridian of a crucial week of diplomatic efforts to avoid a bloody outcome in Ukraine, a country that risks being torn apart by Russia if the Kiev authorities continue their temptation to approach the West. On Sunday and Monday, the meetings were bilateral, between the US and Russia, in Geneva (Switzerland). As of this Wednesday, the multilateral spheres will play, first the Atlantic Alliance in the European capital and this Thursday in Vienna, within the framework of the OSCE, the only scenario of the three in which Ukraine has a chair in its own right.
Before coming to this forum, Washington has tried to reduce the suspicions of the European Union and the Member States in the face of the Russian president’s attempt to ignore them in the solution of the Ukrainian conflict. To clarify that this is not the intention of the Joe Biden Administration, on Tuesday Undersecretary Sherman, also present at the NATO meeting, met with the EU Security Policy Committee and with the Secretary General of the European Service of Foreign Action, Stefano Sannino. In addition, Washington released a statement detailing the more than 100 contacts (by telephone or in person) that the United States has had with all its allies.