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The NATO Star sculpture stands during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels on July 12, 2018.
The NATO Star sculpture stands during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels on July 12, 2018. (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg)

NATO allies and Russia discussed “significant differences” during their first meeting in more than two years as they tried to ease tensions over Moscow’s troop buildup near Ukraine, the alliance’s top official said Wednesday.

The two sides didn’t set another meeting. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO is willing to meet again but that Russia wasn’t ready to commit to a schedule.

“This was not an easy discussion, but that is exactly why this meeting was so important,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference, adding that NATO wants Russia to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine.

There was no sign of progress on one of Moscow’s main demands, that the alliance stop accepting new members. Stoltenberg reiterated that only NATO and applicant countries can decide on membership, saying Russia “does not have a veto” on whether Ukraine can join.

The talks lasted an hour longer than expected, according to a person familiar with the matter. The encounter comes after a U.S.-Russian meeting in Geneva earlier this week, with Western diplomats still struggling to discern the real intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin toward Ukraine.

The topics at Wednesday’s meeting at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels included the more than 100,000 troops that Russia has massed on Ukraine’s border, prompting fears it is preparing an invasion, as well as Moscow’s demands for curbs on the alliance’s expansion further east.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko are planning their own separate briefings.

The Monday session in Geneva didn’t give the U.S. and its allies much insight into the fundamental question of what Putin will do next, according to people close to the negotiations.

As Moscow had telegraphed going into this week, the Russian diplomats appeared to have little room to go beyond the sweeping demands that the Kremlin had laid out at the end of last year, even though they were rejected almost immediately by the West.

At the same time, Moscow is continuing its troop buildup near the border with Ukraine, defying NATO calls for de-escalation. Western officials are increasingly worried that the Kremlin could leave forces there for a long period, keeping pressure on even without an invasion. In addition, Russia could step up efforts to destabilize Ukraine with cyberattacks or other means.

For its part, Moscow has sent mixed messages about this week’s talks, signaling satisfaction that the U.S. is finally taking its concerns seriously but warning that more progress is needed, and quickly. But Russia has been vague about what it might do it the diplomacy fails, hinting at possible new weapons deployments that could threaten the West.

Russian officials have touted as a triumph what they say is the agreement by the U.S. and its allies to finally discuss the Kremlin’s security concerns seriously after years of brushing them off. The Kremlin, which has denied any plans to invade Ukraine, said the decision on whether to continue diplomacy will be based largely on the outcome of Wednesday’s discussions.

War between NATO and Russia is “unthinkable” because it would lead to a wider global conflict, Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins warned in an interview with TV3. “Russia is not afraid of NATO forces, Russia is afraid of Ukraine’s democracy,” Karins told the broadcaster on Wednesday.

Meetings of the NATO-Russia Council had been frozen since an encounter in 2019, amid tensions over issues including the Russian annexation of Crimea, a Moscow-backed military conflict in the east of Ukraine and a clash over alleged spying.

The NATO talks will be followed by discussions in Vienna under the framework of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday.

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Bloomberg’s Gregory L. White, Maria Tadeo and Aaron Eglitis contributed to this report.


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