BRUSSELS – NATO foreign ministers gathered virtually on Friday to prepare their responses to Russia’s ongoing military build-up near Ukraine amid general skepticism over Moscow’s willingness to defuse and negotiate seriously.
After the meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that “the risk of conflict is real” involving a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. But he said the 30-member alliance was united in its desire for peaceful diplomacy.
If diplomacy fails, he said, the alliance stands ready to continue supporting Ukraine’s integrity and independence both “politically and practically” while creating “significant consequences” which ” carry a high price for Russia “.
And he insisted, as President Biden did, that the United States would not make any deal with Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, above Ukraine or its European allies. .
Friday’s online meeting of foreign ministers marked the start of what could be a crucial week for European security. The meeting followed significant efforts to form a cohesive Western response to Russia’s build-up near Ukraine and its sweeping and unrealistic demands for a NATO-free Russian zone of influence and Western involvement.
The meeting was an opportunity to confirm the agreement of the Allies on how to react to the various Russian actions and, above all, the opportunity for Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to consult the Allies and inform them of the American position before the next US-Russian bilateral negotiations. week in Geneva.
These talks in Geneva, at the level of deputy foreign ministers, will take place on Monday as NATO meets Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels.
Then on Wednesday there will be a meeting in Brussels of the long moribund NATO-Russia Council, and on Thursday in Vienna there will be talks at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group of 57 countries, including the ‘Ukraine and Russia. At the same time, NATO military leaders will meet virtually “to discuss issues of strategic importance to the alliance,” NATO said in a statement.
The flurry of talks is an effort to provide a diplomatic de-escalation of the Russian-created crisis in Ukraine, combined with efforts to coordinate serious sanctions against Russia if Mr. Putin decides on further military incursions into Ukraine, and to consider the military consequences for NATO itself.
The United States has worked hard and effectively, diplomats say, to bring NATO and the European Union together in a common front against possible Russian measures against Ukraine. For NATO, which does not apply economic sanctions, the likely responses will be to strengthen deterrence in allied countries bordering Russia and to strengthen support for Ukraine to defend itself – precisely the result that Mr Putin says he doesn’t want to.
But no one claims to know what Mr Putin has in mind, or whether the new unrest in Kazakhstan will worry him and make a move to Ukraine less likely.
NATO officials say they want to keep the focus on Russian activities in and around Ukraine, and not get caught up in a larger debate over Europe’s security structure. They see this week of talks as a dialogue, not a negotiation – to see if substantive negotiations on issues of concern to both sides make sense, but only if Russia defuses itself around Ukraine.
Understanding the escalating tensions over Ukraine
NATO officials say many member states are not overly optimistic about diplomatic de-escalation and believe that Russia may just want to buy time and be able to tell its citizens that the West was unwilling to speak. and thus find a pretext to get away. .
NATO’s 30 members only include two, the United States and Canada, which are not Europeans, Stoltenberg said. Dialogue with Russia will therefore not be the sole responsibility of the United States, he said. He said he was also briefing close partners, such as Finland and Sweden, who have had further discussions on NATO membership in light of Mr Putin’s latest threats to use military force.
As soon as Wednesday’s meeting with Russia is over, Stoltenberg said, he will brief European Union leaders and their defense ministers on the talks, as the Americans also intend to do.
The NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002 to discuss mutual security issues. But he’s been essentially moribund since April 2014 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But neither side has completely abandoned it, with the last meeting taking place in the summer of 2019, as NATO maintains it remains open to dialogue even as it strengthens deterrence.
Yet as relations with Russia deteriorated, NATO expelled eight members of the alliance’s Russian mission for espionage last October and cut the number of accredited Russian diplomats.
Russia responded by suspending the mission’s work to NATO and asked the alliance to suspend its military liaison mission in Moscow and close its information office there.