NATO meets with Russia amid tug-of-war over Ukraine

Feature 12 January 2022
NATO meets with Russia amid tug-of-war over Ukraine

NATO and Russian officials are set to meet for talks in Brussels on Wednesday (12 January) to discuss Moscow’s military build-up along the Ukrainian border and European security.

Wednesday’s meeting constitutes the first talks in the NATO-Russia Council since 2019.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will chair Wednesday’s talks with the Western alliance’s 30 ambassadors and the Russian delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who described the meeting as “a moment of truth” in Russia-NATO relations.

The idea behind the talks is to broaden the bilateral discussion begun by the US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, in Geneva on Monday (12 January).

NATO diplomats also confirmed Sherman, who has briefed the alliance on Tuesday, will join the Wednesday talks in Brussels to “keep the Russians honest” so there is full clarity about what has been discussed in Geneva.

NATO diplomats say the military alliance is ready to negotiate with Moscow on increasing openness around military drills and to avoid accidental clashes that could spark conflict, as well as arms control regarding missiles in Europe.

However, they also stress that many of Russia’s demands laid out in two European security draft treaties in December, are unacceptable.

The US and its allies have firmly rejected the key Russian demands on NATO enlargement and troop withdrawals from eastern European countries that joined the treaty after 1997 as “non-starters”.

Speaking to reporters on the eve of Wednesday NATO-Russia talks, US ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, set a tough tone for the next talks with Moscow, saying Russia would receive the same response from all members of the alliance.

“In our prior consultations and meetings with allies (…) it has become crystal clear that not a single ally inside the NATO alliance is willing to budge or negotiate anything as it relates to NATO’s open-door policy,” Smith said

“I cannot imagine any scenario where that is up for discussion,” she said adding: “We will not allow anyone to slam NATO’s open-door policy shut.”

NATO estimates Russia has massed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine, a build-up that has stoked fears of an invasion.

“Let’s be clear: Russian actions have precipitated this crisis. We are committed to using diplomacy to de-escalate the situation,” Smith told reporters on Tuesday evening.

“We want to see … Russia pulling back its forces,” she said of the Russian troops stationed near Ukraine.

Asked by reporters about scaling back NATO military activities in Eastern Europe, Smith said the alliance won’t pull back to its size as of two decades ago.

“I do not think anyone inside the NATO alliance is interested in going back in time to revisit an era where NATO looked a lot different than it does today – we are operating in today’s world,” Smith said.

Talks, however, could include a “discussion of reciprocal restrictions on exercises”, she said.

Broad themes of Wednesday’s talks would “risk reduction, transparency, arms control and various ways in which we communicate with each other – that is NATO and Russia.”

NATO allies are also expected to voice concerns over what they say are hybrid and cyberattacks, as well as electoral interference, on the EU and the US.

Russia’s chief negotiator played down chances of a breakthrough as Russian troops conduct live-fire exercise near Ukraine ahead of the talks with NATO.

“So far, let’s say we see no significant reason for optimism,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters, adding that Russia was looking for quick results and would assess the outcomes by the end of this week.

“There are no clear deadlines here, no one is setting them. There is just the Russian position that we will not be satisfied with the endless dragging out of this process,” Peskov said, as quoted by Russian news agencies.

Wednesday’s meeting is the second of three key engagements with Russia meant to defuse the growing threat posed by Russia to neighbouring Ukraine as Moscow amasses thousands of troops along the border.
On Thursday (13 January) the parties head to Vienna for a meeting of the permanent council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

With key disagreements remaining after roughly eight hours of talks in Geneva and Russia continuing to demand guarantees that NATO would abandon its open-door policy, US officials say they do not know yet whether Moscow is prepared to de-escalate the situation on Ukraine’s border and drew the prospect of a long-term timeline for future talks.

Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told EURACTIV the approaches followed by the US and Russia were fundamentally incompatible, with the US seeking to reduce the talks to technical arms control issues while Russia wanted to use them to redefine Europe’s whole security order.

“In Moscow’s view, the arms control agreements should follow the logic of the newly agreed order, not substitute for it,” Liik said.

Whatever the outcome of this week’s diplomacy, Liik said it would “likely shape Europe’s strategic landscape for many years to come”.