Russia and the Western delegations went eyeball to eyeball at the first Nato Council meeting in two years on January 12, with the allies demanding that Russia de-escalate tensions by withdrawing its troops from the Ukrainian border region if talks are to continue.
“There was no commitment to de-escalate, nor was there a statement that there would not be,” US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters after the meeting. “Russia’s actions have caused this crisis and it is on Russia to de-escalate tensions and give diplomacy the chance to succeed.”
The tense meeting follows the meeting in Geneva on December 10 between Russia and the US where Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made it plain that the talks would fail if the Western allies did not agree to give Russia legally binding guarantees that Ukraine would “never, never ever” be allowed to join Nato.
The West has countered with its own intransigence, saying that Russia should pull the some 100,000 troops moved up to bases facing the Ukraine from bases in the Western and Southern military districts close to Ukraine, throwing the ball back into the Russian court.
Nato’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that no new meeting has been set for the council but Nato would be willing to meet again but that the Kremlin’s delegation would not commit to a date.
Ryabkov has said that Russia wants a clear commitment to the possibility of a deal on the key question of Ukraine’s Nato membership and hinted that the Kremlin wants it quickly. He said that Russia was not prepared to enter into endless talks and would withdraw from the negotiations if it was not convinced the Western allies were prepared to enter into a real negotiation.
Nato and Russia still have “significant differences” after their first meeting in more than two years and first since Russia broke off diplomatic relations with Nato on October 19.
“This was not an easy discussion, but that is exactly why this meeting was so important,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference following the talks, before repeating that Nato wants Russia to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine.
Stoltenberg and Sherman have both taken a hard line on Ukraine's accession to Nato. Sherman said that the West would not abandon its “open door” policy to potential members and Stoltenberg repeated his earlier comments that only Nato and its applicant countries can decide on membership. “Russia does not have a veto on whether Ukraine can join,” Stoltenberg said.
“In today’s @NATO-Russia Council, I reaffirmed the fundamental principles of the international system and of European security: Every country has the sovereign right to choose its own path,” Sherman said in a tweet.
The talks got off to a reasonably good start with Moscow signalling satisfaction that the Western allies had agreed to the talks and were prepared to negotiate. However, Ryabkov laid out a very clear position that nothing short of a legal deal on Ukraine’s Nato membership would be sufficient for the Kremlin, which the Western allies have dismissed as a “non-starter.”
During the day off between the meetings in Geneva and Brussels Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov hardened the Kremlin’s line, warning that it would soon decide if there was “any sense” in continuing the talks.
Peskov said there was “little reason for optimism” ahead of a Nato-Russia Council but Russian officials met on January 10 to look for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Peskov said the Geneva talks "gave the most important, basic cut of the picture."
"This will be complemented literally within the next few days, after which it could be understood somehow where to move further and how, and whether it makes sense at all," said Peskov, commenting on whether Russia would continue with the talks. Peskov conceded that the Geneva talks were positive, "open, substantive and direct."
"It would be naive to think that one round of negotiations can bring comprehensive results." But he warned that Russia would "not accept an endless stalling of this process," even though no timetable has been included in Russia’s demands.
"A few more rounds are ahead, and they will give a clearer idea as to where we stand with the Americans," Peskov said.
Interfax reported that US officials have agreed to give a written response to Russia's demands within a week, citing an unnamed source close to the Russia delegation.
The Brussels meeting of the Nato Council will be followed by discussions in Vienna on June 13 under the framework of the 57-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Separately, US Democrat senators unveiled a fresh package of sanctions to punish Russia should it invade Ukraine in a move backed by the White House as the administration seeks to limit defections to a competing bill targeting Moscow that is set for a closely watched Senate vote this week.
The current effort is led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, who suggested harsh sanctions added to the defence spending bill at the end of last year.