Russia Questions Whether Ukraine Talks Are Worth Renewing

One of Russia’s top diplomats says he can see no reason to renew talks with the U.S. and NATO about Russian troops massed at the border with Ukraine anytime soon, and he accused Western powers Thursday of being concerned only about their own security needs while ignoring Moscow’s.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said military specialists are giving Russian President Vladimir Putin options about how to respond, if tensions worsen over Ukraine. He did not close the door entirely on continuing discussions, though, saying, “Hope springs eternal. But he added that “talking only on the terms and issues more suitable for the West is not an option for Moscow.”

The U.S. and the European rejoinder to Russian proposals will determine if further security talks are held, he added. During the interview, Ryabkov said he could not exclude the possibility of a Russian military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela if tensions mount.

Ryabkov’s hard-edged remarks to Russian television came as a meeting in Vienna of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrapped up. The OSCE meeting was the latest high-level gathering in a frantic week of east-west diplomacy, which has seen no breakthroughs in trying to defuse a growing confrontation over Ukraine, along whose borders Russia has deployed 100,000 troops.

On the eve of the OSCE meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Moscow that the 30-member alliance is ready to send troop reinforcements to Central Europe if Russia invades Ukraine. Stoltenberg said there is “a real risk of a new armed conflict in Europe” after NATO allies unanimously rejected the Kremlin’s demands for a guarantee that Ukraine would never be admitted to the alliance.

Throughout all the stages of the bilateral and multilateral talks that have taken place this week, the chasm dividing Russia from the U.S. and European nations has seemingly been unbridgeable.

Russia has reiterated demands for NATO to stop admitting any new members, including the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia, and to pull back any NATO military presence from the former communist states of Central Europe that started to join the alliance from 1997. Western powers have maintained their position that NATO has an open-door policy, and independent sovereign states have the right to choose to join alliances or not.

On Monday, an American delegation, led by Wendy Sherman, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, met Ryabkov for nine hours of talks, with the American side emphasizing NATO would never agree to give the Kremlin a de facto veto over its membership.

“We were basically saying to the Russians: some of the things you put on the table are non-starters for us. We are not going to agree that NATO cannot expand any further. We are not going to agree to go back to 1997,” she said. “Together, the United States and our NATO allies made clear we will not slam the door shut on NATO’s open-door policy, a policy that has always been central to the alliance.”

Ryabkov’s remarks Thursday prompted market traders to sell off the Russian ruble, and the share prices of leading Russian companies fell sharply in trading, too.

“The market has had its head in the sand about Russia-related geopolitical risks and is just waking up now,” said emerging markets bond trader Timothy Ash in a note to clients. Traders “may be realizing that Moscow is just going through the motions on the diplomatic front now, but it is set on war.”

Alexander Vindman, a former director for European Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, tweeted “Now what? Diplomacy looks to be a dead-end.”

Ryabkov has been Russia’s lead negotiator in talks with the West that have included bilateral discussions with U.S. diplomats in Geneva on Monday and talks in Brussels with Western alliance members on Wednesday.

His boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, also sounded an inflexible note Thursday, saying, “Russia is not even ready to discuss America’s absolutely unacceptable demand for Russian troops to return to their barracks.” And Alexander Lukashevich, the Russian envoy to the OSCE, said Russia will have to act, if it continues to be targeted by what he called “aggressive behavior.”

Meanwhile, OSCE Chairman Zbigniew Rau, during a press conference in Vienna, identified Russia as the aggressor when asked about the Kremlin’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine.

“Any threat posed to a neighboring country in the OSCE space is extremely concerning and not only to the country who the threat is exercised against … it’s a challenge to the whole 57 states, which are committed to the same principles — that are based on equal sovereignty, territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders,” Rau, who is Poland’s foreign minister, told reporters.

Stoltenberg warned Wednesday that Russia is in danger of achieving the opposite of what it wants, if it launches any further attacks on Ukraine. “If Russia once again uses force against Ukraine and further invades Ukraine, then we have to seriously look into the need to further increase our presence in the eastern part of the alliance,” he said.

Latvian and Estonian diplomats say they have been lobbying NATO to expand its military footprint in their countries as a deterrent to Russia. NATO units were sent in rotation to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and used armed proxies to seize part of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. 

A Russia-NATO meeting Wednesday overran its scheduled time because every one of the alliance’s 30 member states wanted to speak to underline unanimity over the issue of NATO membership.

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