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Thursday May 19th, 2022 8:08PM

NATO, Russia in high-level talks as Ukraine tensions simmer

By The Associated Press
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BRUSSELS (AP) — U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reaffirmed Wednesday that any European country should have the right to join NATO if it wants to, despite Russia's insistence that the military organization stop inviting new members in, particularly Ukraine.

“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 tweeted, as senior NATO and Russian officials met to try to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences over Ukraine's future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding that NATO stop accepting any new members.

The NATO-Russia Council is the first meeting of its kind in over two years. The forum was set up two decades ago but full meetings paused when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It has met only sporadically since, the last time in July 2019.

The talks come during a week of high-stakes diplomacy and a U.S.-led effort to prevent preparations for what Washington believes could be a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moscow denies it is planning an attack. Still, its history of military action in Ukraine and Georgia worries NATO.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin were stern-faced before the talks. There was no public handshake, although the Russian delegation fist-bumped officials from the 30 NATO member countries inside the meeting venue. Sherman led the U.S. team at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

With around 100,000 combat-ready Russian troops backed by tanks, artillery and heavy equipment massed near Ukraine’s eastern border, Wednesday’s gathering has taken on great significance, yet it still seems destined to fail.

“These are completely unacceptable proposals,” Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet told public broadcaster ERR on the eve of the talks. Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, relies on U.S. security guarantees provided by its membership in NATO.

Putin says Russia’s demands are simple, but key parts of the proposals contained in the documents that Moscow has made public — a draft agreement with NATO countries and the offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States — won’t pass muster at the 30-country military organization.

NATO would have to agree to halt all membership plans, not just with Ukraine, and scale down its presence in countries like Estonia close to Russia’s borders. In exchange, Russia would pledge to limit its war games, as well as end aircraft buzzing incidents and other low-level hostilities.

Endorsing such an agreement would require NATO to reject a key part of its founding treaty. Under Article 10 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, the organization can invite in any willing European country that can contribute to security in the North Atlantic area and fulfill the obligations of membership.

“It has become crystal clear that not a single ally inside the NATO alliance is willing to budge or negotiate anything as it relates to NATO’s open door policy,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Tuesday. “I cannot imagine any scenario where that is up for discussion.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that Russia expects a quick answer.

“The situation regarding European security and our national interests has reached a critical line,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters, and he branded the organization “an instrument of confrontation.”

“The alliance has been conceived as such, and it’s how it has been organized and is developing now. It’s quite obvious, so the expansion of this mechanism poses a threat to us,” he said.

He declined to say what measures Russia might take if talks fail, saying that Moscow “wouldn’t like to issue threats and ultimatums and warn that others will pay a high price, as U.S. officials do,” Peskov said.

Maksim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, says the lack of any real Russian concessions in Putin's draft agreement probably means that “Russia is ready to tolerate a failure of these negotiations.”

The idea, Samorukov said, is to “demonstrate to the West that we are serious, we mean business. That Russia is really ready to take drastic steps to impose these concessions” on the U.S.-led military organization.

Still, NATO can't afford to ignore Russia’s offer. Some members fear that Putin may be seeking a pretext to launch an invasion — like the failure of the West to engage — and any talks that would ease tensions over border forces, missile deployments or war games would be welcome.

___

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, and Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.

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