NATO considers options ahead of high-stakes talks with Russia

Ahead of two crucial meetings this week, the United States and NATO allies are discussing a number of ways to deal with deteriorating relations between Russia and the West and the looming prospect of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Although U.S. and NATO leaders have both expressed a strong desire for a diplomatic avenue, more aggressive options to bolster Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian aggression, including major trade restrictions, would be on the way. Table.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken an increasingly bellicose stance towards Europe and the West, particularly in recent months. Among other actions, an increasing number of Russian troops – around 100,000 at present, according to the New York Times – have been stationed along the Russian-Ukrainian border, possibly in preparation for a major offensive.

The Biden administration and the Kremlin are due to discuss the US response to Russian military action in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday, and a broader conversation between NATO member countries and Russia is scheduled for Wednesday in Brussels, in Belgium. Further discussions on Russia’s actions and proposed security demands are also expected to take place in Vienna, Austria, with member countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

After a virtual meeting Friday of foreign ministers from its member states, NATO pledged a cohesive response to protect Ukrainian sovereignty, and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted in a statement Friday that the alliance will is engaged in a diplomatic approach with Russia.

“Russia’s aggressive actions seriously undermine the security order in Europe,” he said. “NATO remains committed to our two-track approach to Russia: strong deterrence and defense combined with constructive dialogue.”

But if NATO’s current tactics – and next week’s talks – fail to dissuade Russia from acting against Ukraine, Stoltenberg signaled that NATO is ready to pursue more aggressive options. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the alliance therefore has no obligation to intervene in the event of a Russian attack, Stoltenberg’s statements to the press show that he considers Russian aggression in Ukraine as destabilizing for European security; and that if that security were threatened, there would be consequences for Russia.

“We have troops, we have forces,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Friday, though he declined to discuss specifics. ” We are ready. We have the plans to be able to defend, to protect all allies, and we are constantly adapting, and in fact investing more now than we have in many years in modernizing our military capabilities to ensure that we preserve peace in Europe.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also warned that the United States was “ready to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression”, although it is unclear what form that response might take.

Sanctions are a well-trodden path in the US-Russian foreign policy space, and other countries, including the UK, have indicated their willingness to increase economic pressure on Russia if the upcoming talks fail. do not lead to a diplomatic result.

Senior US officials told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand that the United States is preparing economic blocs on Russia that would drastically reduce the country’s ability to import goods like smartphones, planes and auto parts – damaging the Russian economy and putting it in the company of pariah nations like North Korea and Syria, which have similar severe trade restrictions.

As Alex Ward explained for Vox last year, previous sanctions have mainly targeted businesses, institutions and individuals. But large-scale trade sanctions, reportedly currently under consideration, would impact Russia on a whole new level, preventing the import of common goods and technology from the United States and partner countries.

The UK is also preparing to impose “high-impact measures targeting the Russian financial sector and individuals” if Russia invades Ukraine, Reuters reported on Thursday, and the European Union agreed in December to work in tandem. with the United States and the United Kingdom to impose its own sanctions. .

Yet Russia has so far presented a standstill, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov telling Russia’s state news agency RIA that the Kremlin “will not make any concessions under pressure and during threats that are constantly being formed by Western participants of the upcoming talks.

Russia continues to deny it plans to invade Ukraine and insists that Ukraine, NATO and the West are the aggressors in the current conflict, a position reflected in security demands that Russia sent last month to the leaders of NATO and the United States. Among other things, Russia is seeking to specifically bar Ukraine, as well as other former Soviet republics like Georgia, from joining NATO — a stipulation that NATO leaders say absolutely will not. respected.

Blinken also said on Sunday that key Russian demands for his draft documents from last month were not on the table, although NBC reports on Friday suggested the United States is considering a reduction in forces in Eastern Europe. .

The Biden administration denied that reductions in troop deployments were being considered, but Blinken did not reject host Jake Tapper’s suggestion that repositioning heavy weapons in Poland, moving missiles or modifying of military exercises could be bargaining chips when he appeared on CNN. State of the Union Sunday.

In Monday’s talks, the Biden administration will likely reassure Russia that it has no plans to build missile systems in Ukraine, despite defending the positioning of US missile systems in Romania and Poland. . The administration also promised NATO officials that it would not make unilateral decisions for the alliance, a diplomat from a NATO member state told Politico.

However, there could be room for negotiation on the military exercises on both sides, the escalation of which has contributed to increasing tensions. NATO regularly holds training exercises in the Baltic region and includes non-NATO states like Sweden and Finland in these exercises, which Russia views as a threat; Russia, meanwhile, has conducted larger and more frequent exercises closer to NATO countries, and both countries have increased the frequency of sorties of nuclear-capable bombers. near Ukraine.

Russian-Western relations are at their lowest in decades

The relationship between Russia and the West has been particularly contentious in recent months, as the Ukraine crisis reaches a tipping point. In addition, Moscow’s support for Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko in his quest to irritate the EU by sending Middle Eastern migrants back to his country’s border with Poland, and the recent deployment of Russian troops in Kazakhstan , have only stoked tensions as Russia appears determined to cement its sphere of influence in former Soviet states.

The public consensus among Western officials, including Blinken, is that while next week’s talks offer possibilities, the seriousness with which Russia is approaching them is unclear at best, as is the Kremlin’s commitment to any reciprocity.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukraine and Russia agreed to — but never fully implemented — a peace deal called the Minsk Agreement. Since then, the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people, as Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote in December, and has helped push Ukraine, especially under President Volodymyr Zelensky, towards the West and NATO. Putin sees in this change the potential for Ukraine to join the alliance – and therefore a threat to Moscow.

Barring a full invasion of Ukraine, however, Putin’s desire to wield power and remind the West that he still has influence in the region could be another reason behind the boost. troops and tactics to get the United States and NATO to negotiate with him. .

But the way forward is murky for Western powers and alliances. For example, it remains unclear how tougher sanctions on Russia might play out, given that previous moves in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine have done little to deter Putin.

Moreover, while the new sanctions proposals would represent a major escalation in Western efforts to deter Putin, it is quite a gamble to imagine that these measures alone would be enough to divert what appears to be a significant and entrenched military buildup. under the direction of an authoritarian leader. whose motivations are undoubtedly much more existential than the simple acquisition of territory.

As Alexander Motyl, an expert on Soviet and post-Soviet politics at Rutgers University in Newark, told Kirby: “The problem is that we don’t know what Putin wants, and that’s really the main thing. .

Any consequences for Russia’s actions are difficult to determine and implement, since Putin remains impenetrable, Motyl argued. “Does he test? Is it invasive? Is he teaching Ukrainians a lesson? We do not know. And so it’s hard to do anything, because we don’t know what [Putin] wants, and we don’t know how far he’s willing to go.

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