US offers talks next month with Russia in attempt to ease fears of conflict over Ukraine
Vladimir Putin has warned of “appropriate military-technical measures” in response to the threat of Nato’s expansion towards Russia’s borders, in a significant ratcheting up of tensions with the western alliance.
The US said it would soon start diplomatic talks in an attempt to ease fears of conflict over Ukraine. Russia has deployed about 100,000 troops on its border with the country, sparking western fears of a possible invasion.
Putin told a group of senior military officers on Tuesday that Moscow would “react harshly to hostile steps”. Russia published draft security proposals last week demanding that Nato and the US cut their presence in eastern Europe, agree never to admit Ukraine into the alliance and rule out ever deploying troops there.
The proposals would reshape much of the entire post-cold war European security order by in effect restricting Nato military deployments to its borders before 1997, when it began to admit former communist states in eastern Europe. Russia’s demand for concessions that Nato has previously made clear are unacceptable has led many western officials and experts to fear they are a pretext for conflict.
Putin said the Kremlin was “seriously concerned” about Nato deployments near Russia’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. “And I want to stress that we are within our rights to do what is required to ensure Russia’s security and sovereignty.”
The US on Tuesday said it was preparing talks with Putin over his security concerns. Karen Donfried, US assistant secretary of state, said bilateral negotiations would begin next month, despite 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 that there is merit in having a discussion,” Donfried said.
“There are other things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable.”
Western officials have stressed the need to engage with Putin diplomatically to prevent the situation from deteriorating. Nato member states also met on Tuesday to discuss possible formats for multilateral talks with Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is preparing wider talks on the crisis.
“Let me be clear: there will be no talks on European security without Europe,” Donfried added. “The key here is alliance unity and alliance cohesion.”
On Tuesday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said the US was pursuing multiple diplomatic channels, and would wait to see “where any of these conversations go”.
He added: “Whether that leads to at some point another meeting between the president and President Putin, I’ll leave that for another day, but [there are] no plans to do that now.”
Russia denies western claims that it is considering 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.
Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, Moscow’s official in charge of the security talks with the US and Nato, used the same phrase last week to say that Russia would be forced to deploy banned nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Europe if the west ignored its demands.
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?”
The US has committed $450m in defensive military assistance to Ukraine so far this year as part of $2.5bn since 2014. Donfried said on Tuesday that President Joe Biden had told Putin that if Russia attacked Ukraine, the US would provide additional defensive materiel.
Donfried said that alongside 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 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.”
Additional reporting by Aime Williams
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu, defence minister, at a military exhibition in Moscow on Tuesday. ‘We are within our rights to do what is required to ensure Russia’s security and sovereignty,’ Putin said © via REUTERS