Russian talks with US-NATO slated for the New Year

27 December 2021

Negotiations between Russia and the United States and NATO will begin in January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on 22 December. Reports suggests that NATO is looking to convene a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) on 12 January.

On 17 December, Russia released two draft security agreements— one with NATO and the other with the United States— which set out a number of proposals, including:

  • An end to NATO military activity in eastern Europe, including Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia;
  • No expansion of NATO membership, particularly to Ukraine;
  • No intermediate or shorter-range missiles deployed close enough to hit the territory of the other side;
  • No military exercises of more than one military brigade in an agreed border zone;
  • An agreement that parties do not consider each other as adversaries and will resolve disputes peacefully; and
  • Neither Russia nor the United States can deploy nuclear weapons outside their national territories.

The Russian proposals were immediately dismissed by NATO, which signalled that it would call for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council early next year, and that any talks with Moscow would have to involve all European members of the alliance and Ukraine. In remarks made by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a press conference with Romania’s prime minister on 21 December he said: “Any dialogue with Russia needs to be based on the core principles of European security and to address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions. And it needs to take place in consultation with NATO’s European partners, including with Ukraine”.

The United States has also said that some of Russia’s proposals are plainly unacceptable—notably a Russian veto on future NATO membership for Ukraine, the removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe and the withdrawal of multinational NATO battalions from Poland and from the Baltic states—but officials will respond with more definitive proposals in due course. The United States has made clear that Russia has no say in NATO membership and said it would not negotiate without Europe's input. "There will be no talks on European security without our European allies and partners," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "We will not compromise the key principles on which European security is built, including that all countries have the right to decide their own future and foreign policy free from the outside interference". US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States is prepared for dialogue with Russia in the appropriate format.

German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said that NATO will examine the proposals but that the Russian government will not be allowed to “dictate” its security issues. Officials within other NATO countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw pact say the Russian proposals undermine their sovereignty and security.

Lavrov did not give a specific date for when the talks will take place. US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried said on 21 December that officials from both governments are working together to "decide on a date".

“There are some things that we’re prepared to work on and that we do believe that there’s merit in having a discussion,” said Donfried. “There are other things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable”.

In his December 23 press conference, President Putin said he had “so far seen a positive reaction” to Moscow's proposals.

The upcoming talks will take place amid heightened tension between Russia and the West as Moscow has built up its military presence at its border with Ukraine (although with reports of some drawdowns on 25 December), sparking warnings from Western leaders and analysts that Russia may move to invade the country - something Russia has denied.

Vladimir Putin had appeared frustrated on 21 December as he railed against NATO expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union, telling his top military commanders that growing western influence in Ukraine left Russia “nowhere further to retreat to” and that he would not stand by and “watch idly”. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was given a host of assurances that the NATO alliance would not expand past what was then the East German border in 1990. Since then, NATO has enlarged five times: in 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined; in 2004 seven Central and Eastern European countries joined (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia); in 2009 Albania and Croatia joined; Montenegro joined in 2017; and North Macedonia in 2020. NATO also officially recognizes three aspiring members - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Most Western analysts consider that Moscow has triggered a crisis with Ukraine partly in order to force a wider security shift with the West. They argue that Russia’s ultimate ambition is to prevent the states of the former Soviet Union from having a security relationship with the transatlantic community, enabling Moscow to assert a ‘sphere of influence’ or buffer zone with NATO.

In a recent article, Andrei Kortunov, Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, said that the overwhelming majority of the Russian population would not support a large-scale military operation against Ukraine, and he called for an immediate programme of confidence-building measures between Moscow and Brussels. There may be room for negotiation, for example, on issues relating to military exercises and missile placement, if mutual concessions were to be offered by both sides.