WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and NATO on Friday categorically rejected Russian demands that the alliance not admit new members amid growing fears of invading the aspiring Ukraine to join the alliance.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have said Russia will not have a say in who should be allowed to join the bloc. And, they warned Russia of a “strong” response to any further military intervention in Ukraine.
Their comments amounted to a complete rejection of a key element of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands to ease tensions with Ukraine. Putin wants NATO to put an end to the membership plans of all countries, including Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is unlikely to join the alliance in the foreseeable future, but NATO countries will not rule it out.
Blinken and Stoltenberg spoke separately following an extraordinary virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The North Atlantic Council meeting was the first in a series of high-level talks over the next week aimed at easing tensions.
“We are ready to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression, but a diplomatic solution is still possible and preferable if Russia wishes,” Blinken told reporters in Washington. He categorically rejected Russia’s claim that NATO was committed not to expand eastward after the admission of several former Soviet satellites after the end of the Cold War.
âNATO has never promised not to admit new members; it couldn’t and wouldn’t, âBlinken said, accusing Putin of raising a straw man argument to distract from Russian military movements along the Ukrainian border.
âThey want to drag us into a NATO debate rather than focusing on the problem at hand, which is their aggression against Ukraine. We will not be turned away from this problem, âsaid Blinken,
Earlier in Brussels, Stoltenberg made similar remarks as allies braced for the wave of diplomatic contacts that will begin between the United States and Russia in Geneva on Monday and move to a NATO-Russia Council meeting and a meeting. pan-European with Russia on Wednesday and Thursday.
“We will not compromise on basic principles, including the right of each nation to decide its own path, including what kind of security arrangements it wishes to be a part of,” Stoltenberg said.
The NATO-Russia Council meeting will be the first in more than two years and will give NATO ambassadors the opportunity to discuss Putin’s security proposals with the Russian envoy face to face.
Much of the documents Moscow has released – a draft deal with NATO countries and the offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States – appear to be a non-starter to the organization. military from 30 countries, despite fears that Putin might order an invasion of Ukraine.
NATO should agree to stop all membership plans, not just with Ukraine, and end military exercises near Russia’s borders. In return, Russia would honor the international commitments it has made on limiting war games, as well as an end to aircraft humming incidents and other low-intensity hostilities.
Approval of such an agreement would require NATO to reject a key element of its founding treaty. Under Article 10 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, the organization can invite to any European voluntary country that can contribute to security in the North Atlantic region, as well as fulfill the obligations of membership.
Blinken said Moscow is well aware that NATO will not accept the requests.
“Certainly, part of (Putin’s) playbook is to make a list of absolutely unfounded demands, then claim that the other party does not engage, and then use that as a justification for aggressive action.” , said Blinken.
Stoltenberg said the Russian military build-up that sparked concerns about the invasion continued.
âWe see armored units, we see artillery, we see combat-ready troops, we see electronic warfare equipment and we see a lot of different military capabilities,â he said.
This build-up, combined with Russia’s security demands and its track record in Ukraine and Georgia, “sends the message that there is a real risk of a new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg said.
Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from Crimea in 2014 and subsequently supported a separatist rebellion in the east of the country. For more than seven years, fighting has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated the industrial heart of Ukraine, known as Donbas.
Russia denies having any new plans to attack its neighbor, but Putin wants legal guarantees that would exclude NATO expansion and arms deployments. Moscow says it is awaiting answers to its security proposals this month.
Despite the rhetoric, Ukraine simply cannot join NATO with Crimea occupied and fighting in the Donbass because the alliance’s collective security guarantee – that an attack on an ally is seen as an attack on all – would drag him into war if the country became a member.
Indeed, NATO assistance in the event of an invasion is unlikely to involve major military force.
âUkraine is a very close partner,â Stoltenberg said. âWe are providing support to Ukraine. But Ukraine is not covered by NATO’s collective defense clause because Ukraine is not a member of NATO.
Blinken and Stoltenberg said the United States and NATO were ready to discuss arms control with Moscow, but Putin could not be allowed to impose restrictions on how the organization protects member countries close to them. borders of Russia such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
âWe can’t find ourselves in a situation where we have sort of second-class NATO members; where NATO as an alliance is not allowed to protect them in the same way we protect other allies, âhe said.
The NATO-Russia Council was established two decades ago. But NATO ended practical cooperation with Russia through the NRC in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Wednesday’s meeting will be the first since July 2019. NATO officials said Russia declined to participate in the meetings while Ukraine was on the agenda.
Cook reported from Brussels. PA editors Samuel Petrequin and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.