The US and NATO told Moscow they were committed to keeping the transatlantic alliance open to new members, rebuffing a central Russian security demand in written responses that could determine the outcome of the Ukraine crisis.
The step was announced on Wednesday by Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, after weeks of tense negotiations with Russia aimed at defusing the stand-off and removing the threat of an armed conflict in Europe.
“NATO’s door is open, it remains open and that remains our commitment,” Blinken said.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato chief, later added that the alliance had delivered its own formal reply to Russia, and reiterated that it would “not compromise on core principles”, including the right of all countries to join and equal defense of all members.
The western responses follow a request from Russian President Vladimir Putin for a written answer to his demands on security in the region.
Depending on Moscow’s reaction, the co-ordinated western responses could either lead to further escalation or to further negotiations on security in Europe, leading Russia to step back from the brink of an invasion.
Putin in December warned of unspecified “appropriate military-technical measures” if the western alliance did not agree to curb its expansion close to Russia’s borders.
“We are open to dialogue. We prefer diplomacy. And we’re prepared to move forward, where there’s the possibility of communication and co-operation, “Blinken said. He added that there were “positive things” that Moscow should accept in the document.
Blinken said he expected to speak to Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, “after Moscow has had a chance to read the paper and is ready to discuss next steps.”
He added that Russia should de-escalate its “aggression” towards Ukraine, “stop the inflammatory rhetoric” and adopt a “spirit of reciprocity” in talks on security in Europe.
The US had frequently rebuffed Russian demands that Ukraine be barred from joining the alliance or that it reduce troop levels on NATO’s eastern flank. However, western allies have said they are willing to negotiate on missile deployments, arms control and transparency around military exercises.
While Nato’s response rejected gross core demands, Stoltenberg said he hoped the country saw the potential of the alliance’s offers for areas of compromise. These include proposals to reopen channels of communication by re-establishing mutual representation offices in Moscow and Brussels, measures to reduce air and sea incidents and opening “a serious conversation on nuclear arms control”.
“It is no secret that we are far apart and there are some serious differences. . . but at the same time that makes it even more important that we look into the proposals and listen to reciprocal concerns and try to find political solutions, ”he said.
US officials on Wednesday were unsure which way Putin would go. Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state, warned that Washington still had “every indication” that Russia was planning an attack between now and mid-February. She added that “probably President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic” if the attack happened during the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin next week.
In recent days, the US and NATO allies have increased their defense and security assistance to Ukraine and put thousands of troops on standby to protect vulnerable countries on the eastern flank of the alliance.
They have also sought to settle on the details of a massive economic sanctions package to punish Russia if it follows through with an attack.
US and European officials have vowed to target Russian banks, cut the country off from the Swift international payment system, impose export controls that would limit its access to western technology, and cripple its energy sector, the largest source of its foreign reserves.
Biden has also suggested that Putin could be personally targeted, and Blinken said the “steps we will take go directly to things President Putin cares deeply about”. Even so, there are still divisions among western allies over the details and scale of such sanctions.
A senior French official said on Wednesday night that “we obtained the signal of re-engagement that we are looking for” from the Russians during more than eight hours of so-called “Normandy format” talks in Paris to discuss the eastern Ukraine conflict that predates the latest Russian troop movements.
“We obtained a good signal in difficult conditions” that would help find a path towards de-escalation, the official said of the talks involving political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. The talks are set to be reconvened in Berlin in two weeks.
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington and Victor Mallet in Paris