Washington Responds to Russian Proposal to Reduce Tensions in Europe

Russia on Friday spelled out its demands for sweeping new security guarantees from the United States and NATO, seeking pledges that would halt NATO’s eastward expansion and block U.S. military ties with former Soviet states.

The central tenets of Russia’s “sphere of influence” doctrine — including demands for an effective veto of other nations’ foreign and security policies — have repeatedly been dismissed as nonstarters by NATO officials. A senior Biden administration official described some of Russia’s demands as “unacceptable” to Washington and said Moscow “knows that.”

But the latest announcement by the Kremlin underscored its escalating confrontation with the West over Ukraine, which Russia views as part of its political orbit. It also raised worries among analysts that Moscow is making requests that it knows the United States will not agree to, in order to create a pretext for possible military action against Ukraine once those demands are spurned.

Russia published two lists of demands — for Washington and for NATO — the latter calling for the removal of all NATO military infrastructure installed in Eastern European countries after 1997, effectively attempting to rework the consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, which left Russia weakened for years.

The demands for NATO also seek to prevent the alliance from carrying out any military activity outside its territory in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A senior Biden administration official, during a briefing with reporters Friday, dismissed some of Russia’s demands as “unacceptable” for the United States and said it was unhelpful to conduct the negotiations in public.

The official said the United States will not compromise on key principles on which European security is built, including the right of all countries “to decide their own future and their own foreign policy, free from outside interference.”

“There are some things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable. You know, they know that,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic matter. “But there are other things that we are prepared to work with and merit some discussion. That said, we will do this with our allies and partners.”

The official did not give details about what could be on the table for negotiations, but issues such as weapons deployments and military exercises have been part of previous talks.

Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine has raised Western alarm that President Vladimir Putin may be weighing a new attack on his neighbor, where Kyiv’s forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed about 14,000 lives. Russia denies that it plans any move across the border but has used the crisis to press its demand that Ukraine stay out of NATO.

In a video meeting last week, President Biden warned Putin that Russia would face tough new sanctions in the case of a military escalation against Ukraine. The European Union is also debating possible new sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.

Russia’s demand that NATO bar the admission of Ukraine, Georgia or any other country on NATO’s eastern flank has long been ruled out by the alliance.

“Moscow has not only been asking for things it cannot get, but in a way they know will ensure they cannot attain them. Serious negotiations are done behind closed doors. Something is very wrong with this picture,” tweeted military analyst Michael Kofman of the CNA security think tank, adding that Russia’s mounting demands “should make one pessimistic about the trajectory.”

The deal Russia seeks with the United States — which is certain to be rejected by Washington — would significantly weaken Ukraine, forcing it to abandon its aspirations to join NATO and cutting Kyiv off from U.S. military aid and weapons.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, amplified the pressure from Moscow, calling for urgent action to begin talks immediately.

“There is no readiness to even enter into negotiations from the other side, but let’s see what happens next,” he said.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday in Kyiv, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba questioned why Russia released its proposals to the public.

“Does it understand that these initiatives are not feasible, and therefore they do not expect any positive reaction from the United States, or do they want to turn these negotiations into a big PR campaign?” Kuleba asked.

He added that Russia’s effort to dictate Ukraine’s relationship with Western powers was “out of the question,” and he expected NATO and the United States to flatly reject it. “I mean, the very idea is embarrassing,” he added. “So I don’t think that either the United States or NATO will actually accept it in principle.

The senior Biden administration official said the United States is prepared to enter talks and is discussing with allies the best format for the negotiations on Russia’s long list of demands. The United States plans to get back to Moscow sometime next week with a more concrete proposal on how to proceed, the official said.

The official said Washington would not be having any conversations with Moscow about European security without the involvement of European allies. As the diplomatic conversations get underway, they stand a far better chance of succeeding if Russia de-escalates the situation on the border with Ukraine, the official said.

“It’s going to be very hard to get partners and allies to engage with the kind of intimidation that is going on now,” the official said.

The United States is hoping to see a Christmastime cease-fire in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia-backed separatists, as well as another prisoner exchange, the official said.

The official also expressed concern “about Russia’s increasingly harsh rhetoric and pushing a false narrative that Ukraine is somehow seeking to provoke a conflict with Russia.”

“The situation is the responsibility of the Russian Federation,” the senior administration official said, noting that the Russian buildup on Ukraine’s border was unprovoked. “There is no aggressive action on the part of the Ukrainians.”

At a meeting with foreign ministry officials last month, Putin griped about NATO’s refusal to hear Russia’s complaints about the bloc’s expansion and called on top Russian diplomats to hammer out a tough new security deal from the Western alliance, including written guarantees.

Russia sees Ukraine as a crucial security buffer and sphere of influence, with officials in Moscow from Putin down questioning its stability and sovereignty in recent months. The Kremlin’s irritation with Ukraine’s tilt toward Europe and Kyiv’s pressure to join NATO has boiled over into anger at NATO’s post-Cold War expansion into Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, beginning in the late 1990s.

Some analysts warned Friday that the chances of compromise appeared to be receding, given Russia’s escalating demands.

Earlier this week, Russia sent the draft security agreement to the United States that would rule out Washington deploying weapons or forces outside its territory, “where such deployment would be perceived by the other party as a threat to its national security.”

It calls on Washington “to refuse to admit to the [NATO] alliance states that were previously part of the U.S.S.R.,” including Ukraine and Georgia.

The draft agreement also demanded that the United States not establish military bases on the territory of former Soviet states outside NATO, nor “use their infrastructure for any military activity, or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.”

This would rule out Washington negotiating with Central Asian nations on the possibility of stationing U.S. bases in the region to allow it to confront Islamic State groups in Afghanistan.

“We do not set any deadlines. We are inviting them to begin the negotiations without delays and without stalling,” Ryabkov said.

Immediate reactions from military analysts were gloomy. The proposal was “hardly serious. A smokescreen,” tweeted Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, a German think tank.

The director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, said it appeared that Moscow did not believe NATO would accept the demands, meaning that Russia would probably try to assure its security through military means.

The senior Biden administration official reiterated Washington’s warning that Russia would face severe economic consequences should the Kremlin decide to proceed with another military intervention in Ukraine.

“We hope that President Putin will take this opportunity to diplomacy and will also listen to the needs of his own people,” the official added.

Strategic Missile Forces commander Sergei Karakayev told the Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda that Russia would intensify test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, with more than 10 planned next year. That compares with 25 in the past five years.

Adding to the rising military tensions, Russia announced Friday that it was developing new missiles designed to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, including hypersonic weapons, where Russia claims an advantage.

“If we look at the statistics of launches over the past five years, I think you understand how intensive and challenging the next year is going to be,” he said.

Arab Observer

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