U.S. and NATO Respond to Putin’s Demands as Ukraine Tensions Mount

WASHINGTON — The United States and its allies on Wednesday formally rejected Russia’s demands that NATO retreat from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from ever entering the alliance, but they proposed several areas — including nuclear arms control and limits on military exercises — where they were willing to negotiate.

The written responses, issued separately by the Biden administration and NATO, offered President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a choice: Enter negotiations with Washington and its allies, including Ukraine, or proceed with an invasion and face what the administration says will be crushing economic sanctions.

American intelligence officials say Mr. Putin still has not made a decision — and may not for several weeks.

As described by American and European officials, the two written responses formalize positions that the United States and NATO have asserted since Mr. Putin issued his demands weeks ago while massing Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Russia had insisted for weeks that the United States provide written responses to its demands before it would decide on its next course of action.Credit…Pool photo by Aleksey Nikolskyi

Mr. Putin sought “guarantees” that Ukraine would never join NATO, and he wanted NATO allies to pull all troops and nuclear weapons from former Soviet republics and nations that once belonged to the Warsaw Pact. He said in December that his demands must be addressed “right away, right now.”

The documents delivered on Wednesday rejected a few of the demands as “nonstarters” and listed several Western concerns about Russia’s behavior that would have to be part of “reciprocal agreements.” And those, by necessity, would take time.

Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West

The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.

  • Competing for Influence: For months, the threat of confrontation has been growing in a stretch of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
  •  Threat of Invasion: As the Russian military builds its presence near Ukraine, Western nations are seeking to avert a worsening of the situation.
  • Energy Politics: Europe is a huge customer of Russia’s fossil fuels. The rising tensions in Ukraine are driving fears of a midwinter cutoff.
  • Migrant Crisis: As people gathered on the eastern border of the European Union, Russia’s uneasy alliance with Belarus triggered additional friction.
  • Militarizing Society: With a “youth army” and initiatives promoting patriotism, the Russian government is pushing the idea that a fight might be coming.

In a brief speech and then in response to reporters’ questions, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the responses from the United States and NATO were drafted together and approved by President Biden after weeks of consultations with allies and Ukraine. The American response, Mr. Blinken said, “sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it.”

He said he expected to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, in the coming days when Russian officials are “ready to discuss next steps.” Senior American diplomats say at least one more round of talks will probably take place with the Russians before Mr. Putin decides between diplomacy and an invasion, which American officials say could kill thousands of people.

Mr. Blinken said the United States would not publicly release its written response “because we think that diplomacy has the best chance to succeed if we provide space for confidential talks,” adding that the United States “hopes and expects” the Russians will agree.

Whether they will abide is unclear: Mr. Lavrov said after a meeting with Mr. Blinken in Geneva last week that he believed the U.S. document should be made public, according to Russia’s Tass news agency. And on Wednesday, he said that his government would describe the American and NATO responses to the Russian people, even if the details remained confidential.

According to officials familiar with the documents, the responses begin with broad principles, including that NATO will not rescind its “open door” policy that any state that wants to join the alliance can seek to do so. Mr. Biden, however, noted at a news conference last week that Ukraine, which has struggled with democratic governance and corruption, would not qualify for many years.

The documents also make clear that Russia will not have veto power over the presence of nuclear weapons, troops or conventional arms in NATO countries. But they open the door to talks on reciprocal restraints on short- and medium-range nuclear weapons, including a revival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. And they say the United States and its allies are willing to talk about mutual rules to limit the size and locations of military exercises; such limits would assure that they are far from borders and could not be mistaken for a force gathering for an invasion.

White House officials estimated that high-level U.S. officials had conducted more than 180 meetings with their European counterparts — a statistic meant to signal that they had made sure that the response was developed in full partnership with America’s allies. Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that his country had reviewed and approved the responses dealing with its future.

Russia had insisted for weeks that the United States provide written responses to its demands, which were issued in late December, before it would decide on its next course of action. Russia asserts that it does not intend to invade Ukraine, but U.S. officials say the Kremlin has drawn up plans for a ground assault that could come at any time. They caution that Mr. Putin could also attack Ukraine — where he has backed a separatist war since 2014 — in a more limited fashion.

The Kremlin was silent on Wednesday evening, but Russian lawmakers had a largely dismissive initial response. Konstantin I. Kosachev, a deputy chairman of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, said there were “things to discuss with the United States” even though he had not seen the written response.

But others argued that it was time for the Kremlin to take the unspecified “military-technical” measures that Mr. Putin had warned of if the West did not accede to Russia’s demands.

“We took the path of negotiation, we didn’t go into hiding, we didn’t hide anything,” said Vladimir Dzhabarov, another lawmaker in the upper house, according to the Interfax news agency. “Now our hands are untied, and we can act as we please.”

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s messaging toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

Rising tension. Western countries have tried to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. But administration officials recently warned that the U.S. could throw its weight behind a Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade.

Speaking at the State Department, Mr. Blinken said the document suggested “reciprocal transparency measures regarding force posture in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe.”

The United States has a small number of military trainers in Ukraine and supplies the country with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual military aid, but it keeps no combat troops there.

Mr. Blinken acknowledged that the American document did not represent a new negotiating position. “It reiterates publicly what we’ve said for many weeks,” he said.

As diplomacy inches ahead, the United States is continuing to take steps anticipating a worst-case scenario in Ukraine, including violence in the capital of Kyiv.

Eight additional Marine security guards were sent to the U.S. Embassy two weeks ago, bringing the total number there to about 40, according to a senior Marine official. On Sunday, the State Department ordered family members of diplomats at the embassy to leave the country.

Ukrainian soldiers in a trench this week in Popasna, Ukraine. The United States is continuing to take steps anticipating a worst-case scenario in the country, including violence in the capital of Kyiv.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

To Mr. Putin, Russia’s demands distill years of his grievances about what he sees as Western overreach in Eastern Europe — a region that Moscow considers part of its rightful sphere of influence. He also argues that a greater Western military presence in Eastern Europe represents an existential threat to Russia.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said the alliance had sent its response, which addressed Moscow’s demand for a separate Russia-NATO treaty, to the Russian Embassy in Brussels.

Asked late Wednesday how long it would take Russia to study the Western response, Aleksandr V. Grushko, the deputy foreign minister, replied: “We’ll read it. We’ll study it.”

“It took our partners almost a month and a half to study our proposal,” he said, according to Interfax.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.

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