US, Russia allies revive talks at NATO

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US, Russia allies revive talks at NATO

The United States and its European allies sat down with senior Russian envoys at NATO headquarters on Wednesday, hoping that a revived diplomatic engagement can head off the threat of conflict on the Ukraine border.

Both sides are still tied to their starting positions and have begun a round of tense diplomacy with some 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine's frontier.

The West defends NATO's open-door policy towards potential future members, like Ukraine and Georgia, while Moscow demands a cast-iron guarantee that the alliance will not expand further into its territory.

Washington has had to engage with Moscow over fears of an all-out military confrontation because of Russia's massive troop build-up around already partially occupied Ukraine.

The NATO-Russian Council, a platform that has not met since 2019 has been revived by the two sides on Wednesday.

It is a timely opportunity for dialogue at a critical moment for European security. When tensions are high, it is important that we sit down around the table and address our concerns, said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General.

In 2014, NATO and Russia broke off practical cooperation after Moscow occupied and annexed the Ukrainian Crimea region.

Russia's diplomatic mission was withdrawn in October last year after eight of its staff were expelled on allegations of espionage.

But former ambassador Alexander Grushko, now a deputy foreign minister, is expected to lead negotiations with Stoltenberg and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who described the revived council meeting as a moment of truth. Sherman met with Russian allies in Geneva on Monday for a direct US-Russian dialogue, but Washington's European allies are keen not to be sidelined in security talks.

The talks were expanded to include ambassadors from NATO's 30 members, according to US officials.

It's too early to tell whether Russians are serious about the path to diplomacy or not, or if they're prepared to negotiate seriously, according to Jen Psaki, White House spokeswoman.

The US president Joe Biden's spokeswoman insists that NATO's relationship with Ukraine is only for Ukraine and the 30 NATO allies, not for other countries to determine. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to roll back what it sees as the West's post-Cold War encroachment on its turf.

Sherman was at NATO headquarters Tuesday to brief Stoltenberg and the allies.

She said the United States is committed to working in lockstep with our allies and partners to urge de-escalation and respond to the security crisis caused by Russia.

After more than seven hours of negotiations in Geneva on Monday, Russian and US officials offered to keep talking, even though there was no breakthrough.

Moscow demands a concrete guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO.

Ahead of the meeting, Grushko said: We will push for a concrete, substantive article-by- article reaction to the Russian draft agreement on guarantees. The allies have long insisted that NATO membership is a matter for sovereign states to decide for themselves, and they pledged to preserve their open-door policy on Tuesday.

They also threatened massive economic and financial sanctions against Moscow if its huge troop build-up on Ukraine's frontiers and Russian-occupied Crimea turns into a new invasion.

Sherman has made limited de-escalation moves, with Washington and Moscow agreeing on reciprocal limits to missile batteries and exercises.

The new US ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, said the talks could discuss reciprocal restrictions on exercises. She described the broad themes of Wednesday's talks as risk reduction, transparency, arms control and various ways in which we communicate with each other. Russia has put intense pressure on Ukraine since 2014, after a revolution that had sided with the Kremlin against moving closer to Europe.

Russia has seized and annexed the Ukrainian Crimea region and Moscow backs an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.