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US holds firm on Russian demands amid Ukraine tensions

US holds firm on Russian demands amid Ukraine tensions

5 min. 27.01.2022 From our online archive
'It remains up to Russia to decide how to respond. We are ready either way'
A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman in eastern Ukraine close to the front-line with Russia-backed separatists
A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman in eastern Ukraine close to the front-line with Russia-backed separatists
Photo credit: AFP

The US has handed over its written response to Russia’s security demands, the latest step in the high-stakes diplomacy over Moscow’s buildup of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. 

Now it’s up to President Vladimir Putin’s government, which didn’t see its key demands met, to reply. 

The document delivered in Moscow on Wednesday by US Ambassador John Sullivan sets out “a serious diplomatic path forward,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington. “We are open to dialogue, we prefer diplomacy. It remains up to Russia to decide how to respond. We are ready either way.” 

But the top US diplomat also made clear that the report largely sticks to points presented by the US and NATO allies in recent weeks: It rejects Russia’s demand that NATO redraw its borders and close its door to Ukraine’s potential future membership, instead offering suggestions such as arms control talks and greater transparency over troop movements and military exercises.

“We will uphold the principle of NATO’s open door,” Blinken said, reaffirming the US and European position that Russia shouldn’t get to dictate which nations join the military alliance. “We also do lay out areas where we believe that together we could actually advance security for everyone, including for Russia.”

Blinken said he expects to speak with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in “coming days.” The US won’t make the document public, Blinken said.

A person familiar with the document, who asked not to be identified discussing its contents, said it ran to three pages and the focus was on reiterating what the US and its allies had already told Russia in earlier exchanges that sought to defuse the crisis.

Among the American offers was a willingness to discuss more transparency in the conduct of military exercises, the person said. The US reiterated a willingness not to deploy intermediate-range missiles or combat troops in Ukraine and asked for reciprocal commitments from Russia.

Other ideas cited in the document included an openness to more transparency on ballistic missile defence and arms control around non-strategic nuclear weapons now that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is now defunct.

Putin’s government - which has long rejected assertions that it intends to invade Ukraine - didn’t immediately respond to the US report, delivered in the evening Moscow time, or to a response from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that struck similar themes. 

But Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said initial accounts of the response from the Americans indicate “there are topics for conversations with the US.” 

Russia has said it would decide whether to continue diplomatic efforts with the US and its allies based on the answers that it had demanded in writing. Moscow has said previously that the talks the US has offered publicly on limiting missiles and reducing risks around military manoeuvres were positive but not sufficient to address its security concerns.

But at separate talks in Paris, representatives of Russia and Ukraine - joined by officials of France and Germany - agreed to continue their diplomacy over the continuing conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. That, and the expected Blinken-Lavrov talks, may offer all sides time to defuse a crisis that has been building for months. 

Blinken’s comments about the official response to Moscow were echoed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke to reporters in Brussels.

“We are prepared to listen to Russia’s concerns and engage in a real conversation on how to uphold and strengthen fundamental principles of European security that we have all signed up to,” Stoltenberg said. 

Yet he also emphasized that NATO is moving forward with steps to take in case of attack, praising the US decision to put 8,500 troops based in the US on high alert for possible deployment to NATO allies. 

Behind-scenes differences

While the US and its allies have promised “massive sanctions” if Russia sends troops into Ukraine, there has been disagreement behind the scenes over how to respond, particularly to a Russian action short of full-blown war. 

Germany has pushed for an exemption for the energy sector if there is a move to block Russian banks from clearing US dollar transactions, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. People familiar with recent discussions said other major western European nations hold similar views, given Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas supplies. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also rejected sending weapons to Ukraine and is holding out on allowing Estonia to transfer Cold War-era equipment to the country. Instead, Germany has offered to finance and train people for a field hospital and send over 5,000 protective helmets.

Pressed about those disagreements, Blinken continued to emphasise public unity on punishing Moscow in case of war. 

“The steps that we will take together, swiftly, will go directly to things that President Putin cares directly about” including finance and technology, he said. 

Blinken added that the US is in discussions with governments around the world on “surging” their energy production and delivery capacities in event of a crisis. The developments comes after Brent crude hit $90 (€80) on Wednesday for the first time since 2014. 

US officials continue to say a Russian attack could come by mid-February. 

In a sign of the continuing high tensions, on Wednesday a top official of the pro-Kremlin ruling party who’s also a senior member of the Senate, Andrey Turchak, suggested Russia could send “certain weapons” to the separatists it backs in the Donbas region. 

A senior Kremlin official later downplayed Turchak’s remarks. Dmitry Kozak, an aide to Putin and a key negotiator on Ukraine, said Turchak didn’t seek advice before making his comments. “There have been many initiatives on this issue,” he added. “We have stopped a lot of them.”

Openly arming the separatists would undermine Russia’s claims - rejected by Ukraine and the West - that it’s not a party to the conflict.

Even as diplomacy continues, the Kremlin maintained a buildup of troops, tanks and equipment near Ukraine’s borders, with a major deployment to Belarus for exercises. Russia has said the forces aren’t a threat to anyone but has refused Western calls to reverse the buildup.

For now, though, it appears the two sides are keeping the diplomatic track going, said Olga Rebro, an expert from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations who is affiliated with the Valdai foreign policy discussion club.

“The danger is that part of this negotiating process may be demonstrations of resolve which can lead to mutual escalation,” she said. 

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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