The Biden administration and the NATO alliance on Wednesday formally rejected Russia‘s demand that America and Europe halt all eastward expansion of NATO, but also stressed that a “serious diplomatic path” remains open to ease soaring tensions over the threat of Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
In another day of brinkmanship surrounding Moscow‘s troop buildup on Ukraine‘s border, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said no concessions were made to Russia‘s demands, asserting “there will be no change” to such “core principles” as NATO‘s open-door policy for emerging Eastern European democracies.
The message was conveyed via a letter U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan delivered Wednesday to the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin‘s government has demanded a rewrite of the security situation in Eastern Europe and what he says is NATO‘s aggressive moves toward the Russian border. NATO drafted a companion letter also rejecting Moscow‘s sweeping demands.
While it remains to be seen whether Russia will launch a military invasion of Ukraine, there are signs Moscow is committed to further escalating tensions in response to the growing resistance from Washington.
Hours before news of the U.S. letter rejecting Mr. Putin‘s demands on Wednesday, the Kremlin took President Biden to task for having threatened a day earlier to impose sanctions directly on the Russian president if Russia invades Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the move would not hurt Mr. Putin, but could exacerbate the crisis over Ukraine, asserting that personalizing the sanctions would be “politically destructive.”
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The Biden administration has not been explicitly clear about what action it will take if the Kremlin moves ahead with military action against Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and struggling democracy whose hopes of moving closer to NATO and the West have set off alarm bells in the Kremlin.
While the U.S. and European Union repeatedly threatened brutal sanctions and economic isolation for Moscow as a response to a potential invasion, it remains to be seen how far European powers and major NATO members such as Germany, whose energy markets are dependent on Russian gas imports, are willing to go.
Mr. Biden has placed 8,500 American troops on “high alert” for possible rapid deployment to Eastern Europe. “There will be enormous consequences if [Putin] were to invade,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Tuesday. “Not only in terms of economic consequences and political consequences but there will be enormous consequences worldwide.”
The Biden administration earlier this week threatened to use a novel export control to deprive Russian industries of key technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing. If applied more broadly, the move could also be expanded to limit Russian residents’ access to smartphones, tablets and video game consoles.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has accused Washington of elevating the sanctions threats because the U.S. and its allies are in a state of “militaristic frenzy.” The veteran Russian diplomat has also said the Kremlin can handle whatever punishments the West tries to exert, asserting that the Putin government is “ready for any developments.”
Mr. Blinken, meanwhile, went to lengths on Wednesday to assert that the U.S. written response to Russian demands outlined “a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it,” with the goal of creating a peaceful off-ramp.
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“The document we’ve delivered includes concerns of the United States and our allies and partners about Russia’s actions that undermine security, a principled and pragmatic evaluation of the concerns that Russia has raised, and our own proposals for areas where we may be able to find common ground,” the secretary of state said. “We make clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend — including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Blinken said the letter “addressed the possibility of reciprocal transparency measures regarding force posture in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe.”
He added there could be “potential progress” in talks with Russia on “arms control related to missiles in Europe” and the Biden administration‘s desire for a “follow-on agreement” to the so-called New START or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Moscow and Washington previously agreed to extend START by five years, after the Trump administration had failed to make progress on negotiations before the treaty was set to expire last year.
Officials said the U.S. letter echoed a separate document sent to the Russians by NATO, including the potential for negotiations over offensive missile placements and military exercises in Eastern Europe as well as broad arms control agreements — as long as Russia withdraws its estimated 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry massed near the Ukrainian border.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday how Russia will respond. The Kremlin has previously warned it would quickly take “retaliatory measures” if the U.S. and its allies rejected its demands.
Mr. Lavrov told Russian lawmakers Wednesday that he and other top officials will advise Mr. Putin on the next steps after receiving the U.S. reply. “If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” Mr. Lavrov said, warning that Moscow‘s patience is wearing thin. “We won’t allow our proposals to be drowned in endless discussions,” he said.
Mr. Blinken, who held a tense round of talks with the Russian foreign minister in Geneva last week, said he expects to speak with Mr. Lavrov again over the coming days to get the Russian reaction. He added that it’s “up to President Putin” how Russian responds.
Matthew Schmidt, a national security and political science professor at the University of New Haven, warns there is a serious risk that the Biden administration‘s approach could backfire.
“The risk with the letter sent by Secretary of State Blinken is that if Putin doesn’t see a way out in the letter, he may feel his only option is going in to Ukraine,” Mr. Schmidt said in comments circulated to reporters Wednesday. “Mr. Blinken‘s public statements suggest there’s nothing in the letter that Russia will see as a path forward out the crisis.”
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has plans to attack Ukraine, but the U.S. and NATO are worried about Russia massing its troops near Ukraine and conducting a series of sweeping military maneuvers.
As part of the drills, motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia practiced firing live ammunition, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea performed bombing runs, dozens of warships sailed for training exercises in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers arrived in Belarus for joint war games.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.