‘Russia Has a Choice’: NATO Meets with Russia to De-escalate Ukraine Crisis

Each of the 30 NATO members took their turn on Jan. 12 giving a Russian delegation in Brussels an earful about the crisis on the border of Ukraine precipitated by Russia’s presence of 100,000 troops. But despite the scolding at the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council since 2019, de-escalation was not promised and an eastern flank member tells Air Force Magazine they are concerned the United States will make security concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Head of the U.S. delegation Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman said after the four-hour meeting that Russia did not broach the possibility of de-escalation. Sherman also said it is still not clear if the week of intense discussions that began with a U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue Jan. 10 in Geneva and ends with a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Jan. 13 in Vienna was ever meant by Putin to be substantive.

“It was truly a remarkable expression of the power of diplomacy,” Sherman told journalists in Brussels. “The NATO Allies spoke in complete unity in support of a set of critical international principles.”

America’s No. 2 diplomat, who led negotiations Jan. 10 and headed the American delegation Jan. 12, said each of the 30 Allies addressed the Russian delegation, affirming an ironclad position that all countries must be free to choose their own foreign policy, sovereignty and territorial integrity “are sacrosanct,” and all nations must be free to choose their own alliances.

In recent weeks, Russia has called for a rollback of NATO membership, removal of missiles and troops from the eastern flank of the alliance, and a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia not be allowed to join the alliance.

Not only were those demands dismissed again in Brussels, but NATO allies called on Russia to de-escalate.

“It ended with a sober challenge from the NATO allies to Russia, which came here today to express its security concerns,” Sherman said, painting Russia’s worries about Ukraine as an aggressor as unrealistic.

Instead, she said Allies called on Russia “to de-escalate tensions, choose the path of diplomacy, to continue to engage in honest and reciprocal dialogue so that together, we can identify solutions that enhance the security of all.”

Ahead of the meeting, an eastern flank NATO official told Air Force Magazine that he believed Russia would only negotiate bilaterally with the United States, and the NATO and OSCE meetings would not be taken seriously by the Russian delegation.

“I don’t think there’s gonna be any substantial progress,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “They came because they were pressed by the U.S. and kind of convinced that otherwise, some kind of progress in the bilateral track will not bring results if they don’t come to the NATO table.”

The official suggested that Russia’s list of demands, since deemed “non-starters” by U.S. officials, was a negotiating tactic to extract other vital concessions. Sans swift acceptance of its demands, Russia has indicated it may forgo future talks and move forward with its own plans involving Ukraine.

“My problem is that as NATO we haven’t really kind of clearly rejected those treaties,” the official said of the Russian term for the demands published and shared with the United States on Dec. 17. “Some of the Allies would just like to kind of be a bit more vague in the communication in order to keep the Russians at the table.”

Potential U.S. Concessions to Russia

Polish security analyst Wojciech Lorenz of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw told Air Force Magazine Jan. 12 that his country is concerned the United States would be willing to give into Russian demands in order to decrease tensions.

Moscow has long eyed with disdain U.S. troops and missile defenses in Poland.

“Poland is especially concerned that the U.S. might decide to withdraw a majority of its troops stationed on Polish soil on a rotational basis,” he said of the estimated 5,500 American troops now in the country. The analyst added there may be a temptation to stop the deployment of the U.S. armored brigade combat team (ABCT) present in Poland since 2017.

Lorenz said the ABCT has helped to strengthen the credibility of deterrence in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Even if the U.S. decided to maintain the presence of almost 1,000 troops in the framework of the NATO battle group, withdrawal of ABCT would have serious negative psychological, political, and strategic consequences,” Lorenz said. “Poland is also worried that the U.S. administration may try to stop the development of the missile defense base in Redzikowo, which is a part of the U.S./NATO missile defense system.”

Poland is poised to host the second American Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Europe after one was made operational in NATO Black Sea Ally Romania in 2016. The system is supposed to defend Europe against missile attacks from the Middle East and it is inherently defensive, contrary to the Russian S-400 anti-access/area denial systems bordering NATO in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and occupied Crimea whose missiles have the capability to reach European capitals.

“The presence of this system infuriated the Kremlin because it amounted to a permanent U.S. military presence,” Lorenz explained of the Aegis Ashore in Poland. “With such U.S. assets located in Poland it would be more difficult for Russia to turn Poland into a military buffer zone, an area where conflict with NATO could be fought.”

The NATO official believes there are nonetheless some areas of common interest with Russia, particularly limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Once covered in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, repeated Russian violations led the United States to withdraw from the treaty in 2019.

A second issue proposed by the U.S. side in Geneva were limits on military exercises. The U.S. Defender series has recently helped the alliance’s newest members in the Black Sea, Balkans, and Baltic region to practice reinforcement in the event of a crisis. Russia regularly exercises with partner Belarus and its presence of 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine has been characterized as an exercise.

Sherman highlighted that the Russian troops had conducted live fire exercises on the very morning of the NATO Russia Council meeting.

In previewing the Brussels meeting Jan. 11, U.S. permanent representative to NATO Amb. Julianne Smith said any discussion with Russia must involve “reciprocal” actions

But, the NATO official said even a reciprocal agreement with Russia on limiting exercises would harm NATO much more than Russia.

“You have to exercise reinforcement of Baltic states and Russians are just behind the border,” he said. “Providing reciprocal measures will basically render us unprepared to reinforce them.”

The official added: “Those proposals have been met with a lot of skepticism in the Alliance.”

Notwithstanding continued concerns about a potential U.S. concession to Russia, Sherman declared in a Jan. 10 wrap up following the bilateral meeting with Russia that troop movements were not on the table, and were not on the agenda for the NATO-Russia Council meeting.

“We did not have discussions about American troop levels,” she said. “American troop levels were not on the agenda for today.”

Following the meeting, the NATO official said the Russian delegation was “not particularly offensive and did not walk away,” while “the Allies were rather united.”

Sherman said the ball is now in Putin’s court.

“Russia has a choice to make,” she said. “Everyone, Russia most of all, will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext, and they may not even know yet.”