Russia has neither accepted nor rejected de-escalation on Ukraine after meeting with NATO in Brussels on Jan. 12, according to U.S. Deputy State Secretary Wendy Sherman.
The meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, the first since July 2019, is part of a week-long flurry of diplomacy in Europe. On Jan. 10, Russia spoke with the U.S. in a bilateral meeting in Geneva. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will meet on Jan. 13.
The talks have been spurred by Russia’s buildup of over 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders and Moscow’s demand for a guarantee that NATO won’t expand in eastern Europe and will reduce its military presence there. All 30 NATO members at the meeting rejected these proposals.
“Allies on their side reaffirmed NATO’s Open Door policy. And the right for each nation to choose its own security arrangements,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “Allies made clear that they will not renounce their ability to protect and defend each other.”
Sherman added: “We are not going back to 1997,” referring to the Kremlin’s demand for all NATO allies to not deploy military assets in countries that joined NATO after 1997 - in other words, all former Warsaw Pact states or former Soviet republics such as Czechia, Poland, or the Baltic nations.
However, Stoltenberg said that the alliance offered to keep discussing military exercises, arms control and missile deployment.
The Russian side did not accept or reject this proposal. "The Russian representatives made it clear that they needed some time to come back to NATO with an answer,” Stoltenberg said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who participated in the talks, said they were frank and intense but the sides differed on fundamental issues.
He said progress is possible and Moscow is willing to talk about arms control but would not step back on its other demands.
Grushko added that Russia would respond in kind to any threat from NATO, whether it be containment, intimidation or a hunt for vulnerabilities in Russia's defense system.
"This is not our choice but there will be no other way if we fail to reverse this current, very dangerous course of events," he said.
Stoltenberg said that armed conflict in Europe remains a real risk.
Leading up to the meetings, both sides have played down expectations that any major breakthrough will be reached.
“It was understood that they were not even close to making concessions,” Hanna Shelest, the editor-in-chief of UA: Ukraine Analytica and strategic studies scholar, told the Kyiv Independent. “The fact that they spoke at all is an interesting development.”
Russia has repeatedly said that NATO threatens it with its constant expansion and incorporation of Ukraine would be a "red line." Until recently, it has repeatedly declined to meet with the alliance. In October 2021, it suspended its mission to NATO after eight Russian diplomats were expelled from the mission.
Shelest said there is a hope of addressing Russia’s security concerns and leading it away from the subject of Ukraine. According to her, Russian experts have said that their country needs a face-saving measure. However, many differ on what such a measure should be.
"Saving face would be to show the domestic audience that Putin is a hero" and that Russia is as respected as the Soviet Union was, Shelest said.
However, Alexander Vershbow, the former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, told CNN that Russia has “blown past” face-saving off-ramps since 2014.
If Russia proceeds with a deeper invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies have threatened punishing sanctions, including financial sanctions on key financial institutions and industry-targeted export control. Media previously reported that penalties may include targeted sanctions against Russia’s elite, the disconnection of Russia from the SWIFT banking transaction system and the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany.