A new round of talks between Russia and NATO countries aimed at averting a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine have again ended with little progress, with the two sides still at an impasse over Russia's demands for security guarantees.
Russia met with 30 NATO member states at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, the second of three diplomatic meetings organized this week in Europe between Russia and Western countries amid fears raised by Russia's massing of 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border.
In Wednesday's talks, NATO offered Russia to hold a series of meetings to discuss arms control and other confidence building measures in an attempt to persuade it to lower tensions around Ukraine. The alliance's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said it had proposed talks on limiting missile deployments and troop exercises as well as how to improve communication and transparency. He told reporters afterward that Russia said it needed to time to consider the offer, but it had not rejected it out of hand.
"We are ready to sit down," Stoltenberg told journalists. "And we hope Russia is ready to sit down and hold these meetings."
But NATO unanimously rebuffed Moscow's core demands for formal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance will pull back its forces from countries in Eastern Europe that joined after the Cold War. Russia and the United States held talks on Monday in Geneva where Moscow pressed those demands and which the U.S. rejected as impossible.
NATO and the U.S. said they would never compromise on what they called the alliance's "core principles," after Russia's negotiators, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, presented the same demands again at Wednesday's meeting.
"Together, the United States and our NATO allies made clear we will not slam the door shut on NATO's open-door policy," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. delegation, said after the meeting, calling them a "non-starter."
But while Russia's key demand was again rejected, the door to a diplomatic solution remains open, U.S. and NATO officials said.
"There was no commitment to deescalate, nor was there a statement that there would not be," Sherman added, even offering some praise for the Russian delegation for sitting "through nearly four hours of a meeting where 30 nations spoke -- and they did -- which is not an easy thing to do. I'm glad they did it."
She and Stoltenberg said Russia now had a choice to make whether to engage with dialogue, saying she hoped the Russian negotiators would now go back to President Vladimir Putin and they would choose "peace and security."
Russia made the sweeping demands over NATO in two draft treaties in December after building up troops close to Ukraine for months. That buildup, along with bellicose rhetoric and plans for "internal sabotage," according to U.S. officials, raised fears that Putin may be preparing to launch a renewed attack on the country after he seized Crimea and launched a separatist war in 2014.
Russia has denied it is planning to attack Ukraine, despite the buildup on its border. Amid the diplomatic efforts, it staged live fire exercises on Tuesday with 3,000 troops and hundreds of tanks in three regions neighboring Ukraine.
The U.S. and NATO have hoped that Russia might accept more modest offers, such as limiting missile deployments and troop exercises. But Russia's negotiator, Grushko, insisted again Wednesday that Russia could accept nothing less than the guarantees on Ukraine and NATO, calling it "imperative." No progress on arms control or confidence-building measures could be made without progress on Moscow's core demands, he told reporters afterward.
Grushko said Russia was now waiting for NATO and the U.S. to send written responses to the Russian proposals and that it would then make a decision on how to proceed.
Russia has complained for decades about NATO expansion into countries formerly dominated by Moscow under the Soviet Union. The Kremlin now alleges that NATO assistance to Ukraine means the former Soviet country is becoming a defacto part of the alliance. The U.S. and NATO say Moscow's demand is an attempt to reimpose its Soviet-era sphere of influence on Eastern Europe and that it violates a fundamental right for countries to choose their security alliances.
Grushko said deescalation was "absolutely possible," but he warned that the alliance's enlargement into Eastern Europe had become "unbearable" for Russia, warning if Russia felt threatened it would use "military means."
"We have a range of military-technical measures that we will use if we will feel a real threat to our security," Grushko said. "And we already are feeling it, if they are looking at our territory as a target for guided, offensive weapons. Of course, we cannot agree with that. We will take all necessary measures in order to fend off the threat with military means, if political ones don't work."
But Grushko also spoke positively about the talks, saying for the first time he believed Russia had "managed to convey to the members of the alliance that the situation is unbearable."
Stoltenberg said Russia could not have a veto over Ukraine joining the alliance, saying Russian claims to feel threatened by Ukraine were also wrong.
"Ukraine is a sovereign nation. Ukraine has the right to self-defense," he said. "Ukraine is not a threat to Russia. To say that Ukraine is a threat to Russia is to put the whole thing upside down."
Western officials have been trying to understand whether the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine is real or a bluff to strengthen Moscow's hands as it makes its demands. Sherman suggested that remained an open question, perhaps even for the Kremlin itself.
"Everyone, Russia most of all, will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext," she said. "And they may not even know yet."
While the buildup, including the new live-fire exercises Wednesday, could still be a negotiating tactic, some Western officials and independent experts also worry that Russia might be engaging in the talks intending for them to fail, so as to use that as a pretext for a military intervention.
"The United States and our allies and partners are not dragging our feet. It is Russia that has to make a stark choice: deescalation and diplomacy, or confrontation and consequences," Sherman said. "If Russia walks away, however, it will be quite apparent they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy at all."
On Thursday, the talks will move to a third round at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Cold War-era forum that includes all of the continent's countries, the U.S. and Canada and several in Central Asia. Those talks are expected to yield even fewer results, with 57 member states participating in an open dialogue.
The Kremlin has suggested it will make a decision whether it is worth continuing talks following this week's meetings. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday said Moscow did not "see a substantial reason for optimism" so far but that for now it was not drawing any conclusions.