Fears of an invasion of Ukraine rise as talks with Russia fail to make progress

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Fears rose Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to invade Ukraine, as talks between US, NATO and Russian officials failed to get Moscow to commit to reducing its significant troop buildup throughout from the border with the developing democracy aligned with the United States.

The Biden administration and senior NATO officials sought to put a positive spin on the high-level talks, while analysts warned that the Kremlin has used meetings this week in Brussels and Vienna to buy time to prepare for a move against Ukraine. .

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, head of the US delegation to the talks, told reporters Wednesday that US and NATO officials stood firm in rejecting key Russian security demands to ease tensions over Ukraine, but also they left open the possibility of future talks with Moscow.

Ms. Sherman framed a special meeting of the so-called NATO-Russia Council that took place on Wednesday in Brussels – the first meeting in more than two years of the panel designed to prevent clashes between the alliance and Moscow – as a “remarkable expression of the power of diplomacy “.

However, as the Russians refuse to back down on demands that NATO withdraw troops and equipment from the former Soviet republics that border Russia, Sherman said the meeting ended with a “sober defiance from the allies of the NATO “for Moscow to adopt a diplomatic solution to the growing confrontation.

He also bluntly admitted that he did not know, after several days of talks with Russian officials, whether some 100,000 Russian troops gathered at the border would invade or not. “Is it an invasion? Is it bullying? Is it trying to be subversive? “Ms. Sherman said.” I don’t know, but it’s not conducive to reaching diplomatic solutions. “

His comments came after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russian and NATO officials had had a “serious and direct exchange,” stating that the Western military alliance still has deep concerns about Kremlin policy. , but wait for more talks to ease the crisis.

Four hour session

The NATO-Russia Council met for four hours, slightly longer than originally budgeted, and Stoltenberg said it was a good sign that the two sides were speaking directly after weeks of threats and risky concerns along the western border of Russia.

“Our differences will not be easy to bridge, but it is a positive sign that all the allies of NATO and Russia sat around the same table and engaged in substantive issues,” he told reporters in Brussels.

Concerns have grown for months that Putin seeks to expand his 2014 earnings, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has a pro-Western government and has been the scene of tension for years. geopolitical disputes between Moscow and the West.

“The reason there is a crisis is because we are seeing around 100,000 Russian soldiers on the border with Ukraine, with, of course, echoes of the events of 2014 and 2015,” says Simon Miles, a Russian expert from the School. of Sanford from Duke University. Public politics.

“Those troops are not only concentrating in significant numbers, but they are also participating in live-fire exercises, that is, practicing war,” Miles said Wednesday in a virtual briefing for journalists. “And we are seeing information operations, disinformation and things like that, emanating from this massive Russian presence.”

At the same time, Miles said it is unclear whether Putin will order an invasion. “I don’t even think [Russian diplomats] knowing what Putin’s ultimate end goal is, ”he said, adding that Putin’s frustration with NATO expansion is widely shared among the Russian security establishment.

“Russian leaders are unhappy with the growth of NATO further east,” Miles said. “They are not happy with this because it is humiliating, I think it is fair to say, for many Russians, not only in the Kremlin. It also calls into question some of their serious security concerns about defending their own territory. “

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko left the NATO meeting on Wednesday expressing doubts about NATO’s claims that it was a purely defensive grouping that did not pose a direct threat to Russia. He also stated that Moscow will respond in kind to any NATO attempt to try to contain or intimidate Russia.

“If there is a search for vulnerabilities in the Russian defense system, there will also be a search for vulnerabilities in NATO,” Grushko said, according to Reuters. “This is not our choice, but there will be no other way if we do not manage to reverse the very dangerous current course of events.”

He also said that Moscow was willing to talk more with NATO on issues such as weapons deployment and verification measures, but that the Kremlin would not allow its broad set of security proposals to be chosen.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told Russia’s Interfax news agency that NATO’s “ignoring” Russian security proposals created the risk of “incidents and conflicts.”

The NATO meeting was one of a trio of extraordinary diplomatic gatherings this week aimed at preventing a shooting war in Ukraine, where Russia has increased its support for a pro-Moscow separatist movement fighting the Western-backed government in Kiev.

American and Russian diplomats consulted directly in Geneva on Monday, and the pan-European Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation (OSCE), which includes Russia and Ukraine, will discuss the crisis in Vienna on Friday.

The Biden administration has said it is willing to discuss Russian concerns about the increasing militarization of border areas in Eastern Europe, but has flatly rejected a demand by Moscow that former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia be forever excluded from it. full NATO membership.

Mr Putin has indicated that he also wants NATO to withdraw its troops and military equipment from all countries bordering Russia, including Ukraine and current NATO allies such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Ms. Sherman told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting that some of Mr. Putin’s demands for security “just don’t get us started.”

Stoltenberg said the 30 NATO member countries were united against Russia’s broader demands. He also expressed hope that there will be more talks with Russia on European security issues, but said the ball was in Putin’s court.

“NATO made it clear at the meeting that we are ready to schedule a series of meetings that address a wide range of different topics, including missiles and reciprocal verifiable missile limits, in Europe. From the Russian side, they made it clear that they are not ready, “said the NATO leader.

• This article was based in part on reports from cable services.

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