NATO said on Wednesday it was willing to talk to Russia about arms control and missile deployments but would not allow Moscow to veto Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance, warning of a real risk of a new war in Europe.
Moscow has forced the West to the negotiating table this week by massing some 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that aspires to join NATO.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after four hours of talks between alliance ambassadors and a Russian delegation in Brussels that NATO would not let Moscow dictate security arrangements to other countries and create dangerous spheres of influence.
“There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
“There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia,” he said. “Our differences will not be easy to bridge, but it is a positive sign that all NATO allies and Russia sat down around the same table and engaged on substantive topics.”
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Russia denies planning to invade Ukraine but says it needs a series of guarantees for its own security, including a halt to any further NATO expansion and a withdrawal of alliance forces from central and eastern European nations that joined it after the Cold War.
Stoltenberg said any use of Russian force against Ukraine would be a serious political mistake for which Russia would pay a high price.
He said NATO might deploy additional troops to eastern allies should Russia again use force against Ukraine, from which it seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
He reiterated NATO’s position that only Ukraine and NATO can decide whether Ukraine becomes a member — a prospect NATO promised, in principle, as far back as 2008.
However, Stoltenberg said NATO was ready for further talks with Moscow on issues including arms control, missile deployments and confidence-building measures. Russia had asked for time to come back with an answer on this, he added.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who headed Moscow’s delegation, was yet to brief reporters.
Ex-Soviet republics, now in NATO, consider deployments
Stoltenberg’s remarks made clear there had been no breakthrough at the talks, which came two days after Russian and U.S. diplomats met in Geneva and reported no narrowing of their differences.
Russia has accused the West of failing to appreciate the urgency of its demands, and said it is not prepared to allow negotiations to drag on indefinitely.
It says NATO’s expansion from 16 members at the end of the Cold War to 30 now — including a large group of ex-communist states in central and eastern Europe — poses a threat to its security and it needs to draw “red lines” now to protect itself.
Meanwhile, the Baltic States are talking to NATO allies about increasing military deployments on their soil to deter Russia, Estonia’s prime minister told Reuters on Wednesday.
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Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once ruled from Moscow, have been members of both NATO and the European Union since 2004, and have long sought more NATO involvement.
“Of course, we are discussing with our allies to increase their presence here to act as a deterrent,” Latvian premier Kaja Kallas told Reuters in a video interview from Tallinn, without giving any details.
“If you look at the map, the Baltic states are a NATO peninsula and therefore we have our worries.”
NATO units were deployed in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland after Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.