The US expects to start talks with Russia in January over Moscow’s demands for sweeping European security guarantees, in a bid to find a diplomatic route to ease tensions over Ukraine.
Russia has deployed about 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, sparking western fears of a possible invasion. Moscow has demanded that Nato and the US cut their presence in eastern Europe and President Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday that Russia was prepared to use its military against what he called a growing threat from Nato.
Washington plans to open bilateral talks with Moscow on the security proposals next month, Karen Donfried, US assistant secretary of state, said on Tuesday, despite widespread alarm among EU and Nato member states that many of the demands are impossible and would weaken the western military alliance.
“We are prepared to discuss those proposals that Russia put on the table. There are some things that we are prepared to work on, and that we do believe there is merit in having a discussion,” Donfried told reporters. “There are other things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable.”
Donfried said the date of talks would be agreed with Moscow, but that they would run alongside talks between Russia and Nato and inside the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Nato member states are meeting on Tuesday to discuss possible formats for talks with Russia, she said, and the OSCE had also begun preparations.
“Let me be clear: there will be no talks on European security without Europe,” she added, in a nod to concerns among some eastern European states that Washington and Moscow could discuss their security over their heads. “The key here is alliance unity and alliance cohesion.”
Putin told a group of senior military officers on Tuesday that the Kremlin was “seriously concerned” about Nato deployments near the country’s borders and the possibility of it having hypersonic weapons in Ukraine that could strike Moscow in less than 10 minutes.
“If our western colleagues continue this clearly aggressive stance, we will take appropriate military-technical measures in response and react harshly to hostile steps,” Putin said, according to state newswire RIA Novosti. “And I want to stress that we are within our rights to do what is required to ensure Russia’s security and sovereignty.”
The remarks were Putin’s first since Russia unveiled its draft security proposals, which he denied were an ultimatum but said were essential to stop a conflict.
The draft proposals, if accepted, would reshape much of the entire post-cold war European security order by pushing back Nato to its borders before 1997, when it began to admit former communist states in eastern Europe.
Russia’s public tabling of a demand for commitments that Nato has made clear are unacceptable — such as an indefinite ban on Ukraine’s membership and giving Moscow a veto on military deployments in member states — has led many western officials and experts to fear they are a pretext for war.
Russia denies western claims that it is considering any military steps towards Ukraine. Putin did not specify what he meant by “military-technical means” or the specific context in which Russia would deploy them.
Putin claimed the US was considering an armed incursion from Ukraine into Russian territory and said Nato expansion had boxed it into a corner. “We can’t retreat any further,” he said. “Do they really think we’ll sit idly as they create threats against us?”
Donfried said that alongside opening diplomatic talks, the US and its EU allies were “poised to move in a dramatic way” if Russia took “any further military aggression against Ukraine”.
The US and EU were consulting on “specific packages of sanctions”, she said, without naming any measures.
Asked if evicting Russia from the international Swift banking network was part of those packages, she replied: “There is no sanctions option that is off the table here, and we are talking about things that would have severe consequences for Russia’s economy and financial system.”