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US offers written response to Russian demands

The United States delivered a written response to Russia’s demands in Eastern Europe, which included its concerns over escalating military tensions in the region.Pool photo by Brendan Smialowski

The U.S. and NATO gave formal responses on Wednesday to Russia’s demands that NATO pull back forces from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, amid escalating military tensions in Eastern Europe.

Russia had been insisting for weeks that the United States provide written responses to the Kremlin’s demands before it would decide on its next course of action, while asserting that it had no plans to invade Ukraine.

Both Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the Russian foreign ministry said that the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, had personally delivered the U.S.’s written response to the ministry. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said NATO had also sent its reply.

The U.S. response “sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it,” Mr. Blinken said at a news briefing in Washington. He said he expects to speak in the coming days with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, once Russian officials have read the American paper and are “ready to discuss next steps.”

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The document suggests “reciprocal transparency measures regarding force posture in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe,” Mr. Blinken said, as well as nuclear arms control in Europe.

The Biden administration has already made such proposals, so it is unclear whether the U.S. response will have any effect on the growing crisis over Russia’s massive troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders.

“It reiterates publicly what we’ve said for many weeks,” Mr. Blinken.

Mr. Blinken said that the United States had not moved from its refusal to contemplate ruling out the possibility of future Ukrainian membership in NATO, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded, although President Biden and other U.S. officials have said there is little possibility Ukraine could join the military alliance anytime soon.

“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,” Mr. Blinken said.

Russia has also demanded that the United States remove nuclear weapons from Europe and withdraw troops and weapons from former Soviet bloc countries that joined the alliance after 1997. The United States has deemed those demands “non-starters.’’

Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed that Mr. Sullivan had delivered the U.S. response in a meeting with the deputy foreign minister, Aleksandr V. Grushko. The terse ministry statement gave no indication of the document’s contents.

Mr. Blinken said that the U.S. response was crafted in close consultation with European allies. “There’s no daylight among the United States and our allies and partners on these matters,” he said.

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The NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg criticized Russia’s continued military buildup along Ukraine’s borders but stressed that a diplomatic solution to the standoff was still possible.Stephanie Lecocq/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Stoltenbeg said at an evening news conference that NATO’s reply to Russia, like the American one, contained proposals for specific areas of negotiation about arms control and transparency of military exercises, and suggested reopening liaison offices between NATO and Moscow.

“A political solution is still possible,’’ he said. “But Russia has to engage.”

At the same time, NATO has increased the readiness of a 5,000-member rapid-response force, currently led by France, able to deploy quickly to support alliance members. Mr. Stoltenberg noted the continuing buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine and most worrying, he suggested, the integration of Russian and Belarussian forces, “under the disguise of an exercise,” with sophisticated weapons, including S400 air defense systems.

The United States would not release its response publicly, Mr. Blinken said, adding that he hoped Russia would take the same approach. There is no guarantee that Moscow — known for its defiant negotiating tactics — will heed Washington’s appeal.

Mr. Blinken did not indicate what he expects next from the Russians, or when.

“Whether they choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue, whether they decide to renew aggression against Ukraine,” he said, “we’re prepared either way.”

Michael Schwirtz and Steven Erlanger contributed reporting.

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