Live Updates: NATO Urges Russia to Ease Crisis Over Ukraine

A four-hour meeting at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels was part of a diplomatic push to avert a potential invasion, with close to 100,000 Russian troops positioned near Ukraine’s borders. A meeting between U.S. and Russian officials on Monday was inconclusive.

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Russia’s deputy defense minister, Aleksandr V. Fomin, left, and deputy foreign minister, Aleksandr V. Grushko, center, with the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, before their meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by Olivier Hoslet

BRUSSELS — The leader of NATO said on Wednesday that “significant differences” remained between the bloc and Russia after four hours of talks aimed at holding off a Russian invasion of Ukraine and calming tensions between Moscow and the West.

“Our differences will not be easy to bridge,” the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, told a news conference after the talks at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels.

Mr. Stoltenberg said that NATO allies urged Russia to “immediately de-escalate the situation in Ukraine,” where close to 100,000 Russian troops have massed near the borders, and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors.

And he said that NATO allies reaffirmed their refusal to accept Russian demands to stop further enlargement with countries that wished to join the alliance and to withdraw all allied troops from NATO members bordering Russia.

“This wasn’t an easy discussion, but that is exactly why this meeting was so important,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, adding that NATO allies and Russia had “a very serious and direct exchange on the situation in and around Ukraine, and implications for European security.”

The meeting at NATO’s Brussels headquarters was the second stop in a diplomatic roadshow focused on the Kremlin, after talks in Geneva on Monday between Russian and American officials. Looming over the high-level diplomacy is whether the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, will invade Ukraine as he seeks to pressure the West to roll back NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, or de-escalate.

The United States and its NATO allies hope that Mr. Putin will decide to negotiate, as he is now confronted with threats of punishing economic sanctions and even of new deployments in NATO allies bordering Russia.

NATO officials have questioned the seriousness of Moscow’s commitment to a diplomatic resolution. Still, they said that wider issues of European security could be discussed with Russia, including nuclear stockpiles, missile deployments, limits on conventional forces in Europe, better safety at sea and in the air, and more transparency about military exercises.

As the talks concluded, Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state who led the American side in Geneva, tweeted: “I reaffirmed the fundamental principles of the international system and of European security: Every country has the sovereign right to choose its own path.”

The Russian delegation was headed by a deputy foreign minister, Aleksandr V. Grushko, who was Russia’s permanent representative to NATO from 2012 to 2018.

It was formally a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which was established in 2002 to discuss mutual security concerns but has been essentially moribund since April 2014 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

NATO has 30 members and so, in a sense, the meeting was 30 against one. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, though the alliance promised in 2008 that it would be someday.

NATO officials emphasized that they wanted to keep the focus on Russia’s large and continuing military buildup surrounding Ukraine, rather than on Russian desires to force a renegotiation of the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe.

After Monday’s talks, Sergei A. Ryabkov, who led the Russian side, denied that Russia had any intention of a new military invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Mr. Ryabkov warned that if the West did not agree to Russia’s demands to pull back NATO’s footprint in Eastern Europe and reject any future membership for Ukraine, it would face unspecified consequences that would put the “security of the whole European continent” at risk.

Before Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Grushko told reporters that “the moment of truth in our relationship with the alliance is arriving,” according to Russian news agencies.

The U.S. delegation, left, faced the Russian representatives at the talks in Geneva on Monday. The discussions were judged professional and candid by both sides, but inconclusive.Credit…Pool photo by Denis Balibouse

BRUSSELS — There is a lot of talk this week about Ukraine, in three very different forums.

The first meeting, on Monday in Geneva, was strictly bilateral, between the two Cold War superpowers, Russia and the United States. Talks were judged professional and candid by both sides, but inconclusive.

The second, which began on Wednesday in Brussels, is between the 30-member NATO alliance and Russia, which wants guarantees that NATO enlargement will stop and that the trans-Atlantic bloc, which includes the United States and Canada, will allow Russia to control the foreign-policy choices of former Soviet states like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

NATO has its own grievances to raise with Russia, beyond the threats to Ukraine.

The third meeting, on Thursday in Vienna, is a regularly scheduled session of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which also includes Ukraine.

While this meeting will take place at a lower diplomatic level — with ambassadors rather than foreign ministers and other top officials — the group, known as the O.S.C.E., matters. If Russia decides to pursue its aims diplomatically rather than go to war again in Ukraine, some of the negotiations on future European security will take place under the group’s auspices.

Both the Helsinki Final Act and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe — which helped shape and stabilize Cold War Europe — were negotiated there. So the group is a logical place to consider any new or revised treaties on European security.

But whether Russia will choose the diplomatic path remains unclear, and a decision is not expected immediately. For the moment, Russia is in discussions with the United States and its European allies about mutual grievances; it is not yet, both sides emphasize, a negotiation.

So when will any decisions be made? A serious negotiation could take many months, and both the United States and NATO have said that they will negotiate with Russia only if it de-escalates and redeploys its thousands of troops away from the border with Ukraine.

Both the Americans and Russians say that after this week, they will discuss whether to keep talking and how, and whether these discussions will lead to negotiations.

That is, unless Mr. Putin decides to argue that Washington and its allies do not take Russia’s demands seriously — and chooses to use this week as a pretext to go to war.

10,000

UKRAINE

Troops

Artillery

Armored vehicles

Other military or air installations

Luhansk

Motorized infantry unit

Approximate line

separating Ukrainian and

Russian-backed forces.

Military analysts say Russian troops

deployed to Ukraine’s east could

be used to seize additional territory

from Ukrainian control, beyond

what has already been taken by

Russian-backed separatists.

32,000 troops

in Eastern Ukraine

Donetsk

Motorized infantry unit

RUSSIA

Persianovskiy

Two tank units

Motorized infantry unit

Rostov-on-Don

Motorized infantry unit

Artillery unit

Southern Military District

Army Corps

SEA OF Azov

10,000

UKRAINE

Troops

Artillery

Armored vehicles

Other military or air installations

Approximate line

separating Ukrainian and

Russian-backed forces.

Luhansk

Motorized infantry unit

Military analysts say Russian troops

deployed to Ukraine’s east could

be used to seize additional territory

from Ukrainian control, beyond

what has already been taken by

Russian-backed separatists.

32,000 troops

in Eastern Ukraine

Donetsk

Motorized infantry unit

RUSSIA

Persianovskiy

Two tank units

Motorized infantry unit

Rostov-on-Don

Motorized infantry unit

Artillery unit

Southern Military District

Army Corps

SEA OF Azov

10,000

Troops

Artillery

Armored vehicles

UKRAINE

Other installations

Approximate line

separating Ukrainian and

Russian-backed forces.

Military analysts say Russian

troops deployed to Ukraine’s

east could be used to seize

additional territory from

Ukrainian control, beyond what

has already been taken by

Russian-backed separatists.

Luhansk

32,000 troops

in Eastern Ukraine

Donetsk

Persianovskiy

Rostov-on-Don

RUSSIA

SEA OF Azov

10,000

Troops

Artillery

Armored vehicles

UKRAINE

Other installations

Approximate line

separating Ukrainian and

Russian-backed forces.

RUSSIA

Luhansk

32,000 troops

in Eastern Ukraine

Donetsk

Persianovskiy

Rostov-on-Don

A buildup of Russian forces near the border with Ukraine has raised concerns among Western and Ukrainian officials that the Kremlin might be preparing for significant military action, possibly an invasion. This map, compiled by The New York Times, shows troops, tanks and heavy artillery moving into positions that threaten to widen the conflict in Ukraine’s east as well as potentially open a new front on Ukraine’s northern border, closer to the capital, Kyiv.

Russia currently has about 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, according to Ukrainian and Western officials. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the Kremlin has drawn up plans for a military operation involving up to 175,000 troops that could begin in the coming weeks. While it is not clear whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has decided to launch an attack, analysts say the country is well on its way toward constructing the architecture needed for a significant military intervention in Ukraine.

The maps represent a snapshot of current Russian positions, as well as broad estimates of the number of troops and kinds of equipment deployed within striking distance of Ukraine. It is based on information obtained by Ukrainian and Western officials as well as independent military analysts and satellite imagery.

Celebrations in Sevastopol in 2017 for the third anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.Credit…Max Vetrov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the heart of the tensions between Russia and NATO members lie divisions over a key pillar of Russia’s foreign policy: its diminished sphere of influence, which President Vladimir V. Putin has vowed to preserve and even extend.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has exerted influence over former Soviet republics in a range of ways. It has sent troops into countries like Georgia and Ukraine; furnished military assistance to Belarus and, most recently, Kazakhstan; created regional organizations under its leadership; and struck bilateral economic agreements, such as oil and gas partnerships, that have kept countries dependent upon it.

One of Russia’s goals, analysts and historians say, has been to maintain the aura, diplomatic influence and economic might that are the preserve of great powers — all of which it lost in the 1990s. Another key concern for the country’s leaders has been to limit what they see as an expansion of Western interests into Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

Three former Soviet republics — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — joined NATO in 2004, among more than a dozen ex-communist states in Central and Eastern Europe that have become part of the alliance since the late 1990s.

Asked in 2008 whether Russia’s sphere of influence encompassed its border states, President Dmitri A. Medvedev said: “It is the border region, but not only.”

So when NATO in 2008 promised membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics along its borders, Russia saw that as a direct threat. Since then, it has invaded both countries, kept forces at their borders and even annexed some of their territory.

In an essay published in July on the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Mr. Putin linked Ukraine’s past, present and future to Russia, asserting that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

“For we are one people,” Mr. Putin wrote.

Moscow’s approach has contributed to an impasse with the United States. After a tense, daylong meeting with U.S. officials in Geneva on Monday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, reiterated that it was “absolutely mandatory” that Ukraine “never, never, ever” become a NATO member. The U.S. envoy to the meeting, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, countered that the United States could never make such a pledge because “we will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia arriving for his annual news conference in Moscow last month.Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has spent months massing close to 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border. But Moscow says it has no intention of invading.

What is Russia’s next move? No one knows, except perhaps Mr. Putin. And that is by design.

Analysts said that not even members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle were likely to know how seriously Mr. Putin is contemplating full-scale war with Ukraine. Nor would they know what American concessions he is prepared to accept in order to defuse the crisis.

Instead, Mr. Putin is likely not even to have made a decision, according to Russian analysts as well as American officials. And he is relishing keeping the West on edge.

“For the first time in 30 years, the United States has agreed to discuss issues that it was impossible to discuss even a year ago,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of a political analysis firm, R.Politik.

The problem with Mr. Putin’s approach is that it gives his diplomats next to no flexibility to negotiate on Russia’s behalf. Ms. Stanovaya warned that even if diplomats did reach some kind of deal, hawks in Moscow who have more of Mr. Putin’s ear could soon help derail it.

Analysts noted that the foreign-ministry officials taking the lead in the talks most likely did not even know what military options the Kremlin was considering. The virus-free cocoon Mr. Putin has tried to establish around himself has meant that even confidants are forced to spend days in quarantine before being allowed into a room with him, further reducing his connections with the outside world.

“The expert opinion that I can authoritatively declare is: Who the heck knows?” Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Russian foreign-policy analyst who heads a council that advises the Kremlin, said in a telephone interview.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov at a press conference following talks with US officials on soaring tensions over Ukraine, in Geneva, on Jan. 10.Credit…Eloi Rouyer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine — It sounded like a reassuring pronouncement: Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, declaring after negotiations with the United States on Monday that “we have no intention to invade Ukraine.”

But skepticism ran deep inside Ukraine, where politicians were quick to discount the pledge.

“When Russians say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want to invade Ukraine’ what they mean is, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we do want to invade Ukraine,'” said Oksana Syroid, a former deputy speaker of Parliament.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former Ukrainian national security adviser, also discounted Mr. Ryabkov’s promise. “It’s not so important what they say now,” Mr. Danylyuk said. “What I don’t want to happen is, after some time, the Russians saying, ‘we didn’t intend to invade, but….'”

“They can always put a comma after it and say, ‘but,'” he added. “The Kremlin is very good at this.”

Ms. Syroid said she had little doubt Russia wanted to regain control over Ukraine. But she added that the military buildup and Russian commentary that has toggled between ominous and more conciliatory may not be a prelude to a wider war as much as a means of extracting political concessions from rattled Western governments and Ukraine.

Some Ukrainian analysts were drawing conclusions that Russia would end the week of talks with no concessions. NV, a political news site, called the talks in a headline “Russia’s Foreign Policy Fraud.”

Ukrainian border guards on a joint patrol this month near the border with Belarus.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Ukraine presents NATO with a dilemma many years in the making — one the alliance, itself, helped create.

In 2008, NATO — an American-led alliance explicitly created to counter the Soviet Union — promised membership to two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia, but without specifying when or how they could join.

Russia saw the offer as a potential threat on its borders and an encroachment into the heart of its sphere of influence, the most serious in a series of affronts and humiliations by the West since the fall of the Soviet Union. From the outset, some NATO nations questioned whether the offer of membership was wise, and it is not clear that the promise will ever be fulfilled, but predictably, it has fed a lasting conflict with President Vladimir V. Putin.

With Ukraine a NATO partner but not a member, it does not benefit from NATO’s core principle, the commitment to collective defense, though Ukraine has sent troops to fight in NATO missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, as thousands of Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s borders, NATO is not bound by treaty to protect Ukraine militarily, nor is it likely to try. Asked last month about the possibility of dispatching U.S. forces to Ukraine, President Biden flatly ruled it out, telling reporters at the White House, “That is not on the table.”

President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia met in Geneva in June.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — To the Biden administration, the talks with Russia this week are about defusing the chances of a major war in Europe — potentially ignited by a Russian invasion of Ukraine — and upholding the principle that nations do not rewrite their borders by force.

For Vladimir V. Putin, the issue may be much larger: Whether he can roll back the clock to the mid-1990s, using this particular moment in history to, in the words of the conservative historian Niall Ferguson, “re-create the old Soviet sphere of influence.”

Russia’s demands, if taken at face value, are striking: If the West wants an end to the threats to Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s government has declared, it must pull back its arms, its forces and even its nuclear weapons from former Soviet states — and commit that Ukraine and other states in the region will never join the NATO alliance.

If that stance has echoes of the Berlin crisis of 1961, which led to the building of the wall, or the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact powers in 1968, well, the similarities (and some significant differences) are there.

The lesson of the past year may be that while the Cold War is long over, Cold War-like behavior lives on. And in the three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the tension between the world’s two principal nuclear adversaries has never been worse — making the pathway to a peaceful de-escalation harder to discern.

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