Senior NATO and Russian officials are meeting on Wednesday to attempt to reconcile apparently insurmountable differences over Ukraine’s future, despite widespread doubts about the sincerity of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security plans to de-escalate hostilities.
The meeting takes place during a week of high-stakes diplomacy and a US-led push to block Russian preparations for a possible invasion of Ukraine, according to Washington. Moscow denies that an assault is in the works. Nonetheless, NATO is concerned about its military actions in Ukraine and Georgia.
The Russian delegation will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin to the NATO-Russia Council, which will meet for the first time in over two years. Wendy Sherman, the United States’ Deputy Secretary of State, will also be present at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The meeting will last around three hours. The NATO-Russia Council, their main meeting place, was established two decades ago, but full sessions were halted in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Since then, it has only convened on a periodic basis, the most recent meeting being in July 2019.
Wednesday’s gathering has taken on immense significance, with about 100,000 combat-ready Russian forces massed just across Ukraine’s eastern border, backed by tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment, yet it still appears doomed to fail.
On the eve of the negotiations, Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet told public television ERR, “These are utterly unacceptable propositions.”
Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, is reliant on the security assurances offered by the United States as a result of its NATO membership. The three Baltic countries were originally under Soviet authority, but are today members of the European Union and NATO.
Putin claims that Russia’s demands are straightforward, but key elements of the proposals contained in the documents made public by Moscow — a draft agreement with NATO countries and an offer of a treaty between Russia and the United States — are unlikely to be accepted by the 30-nation military alliance.
NATO would have to agree to cease all aspirations for membership, not only with Ukraine, and reduce its presence in countries like Estonia, which are near to Russia’s borders. Russia would agree to limit its war exercises in exchange for an end to aircraft buzzing events and other low-level conflicts.
Acceptance of such an accord would necessitate NATO’s rejection of a major provision of its founding treaty. According to Article 10 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, the organization has the authority to invite any willing European country that can contribute to North Atlantic security and meet membership duties.
“It has become absolutely evident that not a single ally within the NATO alliance is ready to move or discuss anything in relation to NATO’s open door policy,” said Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO. “I can’t think of a circumstance where that would be up for debate.”
The lack of any meaningful Russian concessions in Putin’s draft deal, according to Maksim Samorukov of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, likely suggests that “Russia is willing to tolerate a failure of these discussions.”
The goal, according to Samorukov, is to “show to the West that we are serious and serious about business.” That Russia is indeed prepared to use extreme measures to compel the US-led military group to make these concessions.
NATO, on the other hand, cannot afford to dismiss Russia’s offer. Some members believe Putin is looking for an excuse to launch an attack, such as the West’s reluctance to engage, and any negotiations that would reduce tensions over border forces, missile deployments, or war simulations would be welcomed.
However, time is of the importance for the Kremlin.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Tuesday that the meetings this week have given him little reason to be optimistic. He believes the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting, as well as a meeting on Thursday at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will decide if it is worthwhile to continue discussing.