The American envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said on Tuesday that the U.S. and its allies want Russia to take concrete actions to de-escalate tensions on Ukraine’s border, amid fears that Moscow is prepared to launch a large-scale invasion of the former Soviet state.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, said the U.S. expects Russia to pull back the forces it has massed on Ukraine’s border and commit to engaging with the Minsk agreements, the 2014 diplomatic protocol intended to end fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“We want to see the full implementation of the Minsk agreements with Russia pulling back its forces. But if Russia pursues confrontation, there will be serious consequences,” Smith told reporters during a briefing from Brussels, ahead of a meeting of the NATO-Russia council and set for Wednesday.
The Minsk agreements are a step-by-step guide written between 2014 and 2015 aimed at resolving war in Ukraine’s east, where Ukrainian government forces are battling Russian-backed separatists.
Kyiv and Moscow recommitted to a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine in December, in what was viewed as a welcome confidence-building measure amid Russia’s massing of more than 100,000 troops on the Ukraine’s border and ahead of the diplomatic meetings in Europe.
The Ukraine Defense Ministry recorded two ceasefire violations from the Russian side on Monday but said no violations had occurred on Tuesday.
Smith said that the U.S. and its NATO allies are heading into the NATO-Russia council meeting Wednesday “prepared for the conversation” and in lockstep with a commitment to dialogue, but are resolved to impose consequences on Russia should it launch further aggression inside Ukraine.
These include sanctions on Russian financial institutions, export controls that target key industries, enhancement of NATO force posture on allied territory in eastern Europe and increased security assistance to Ukraine.
“I think all of us are feeling like we're prepared for the conversation tomorrow,” Smith said, but stressed that “no one has a crystal ball, and we'll have to wait to see what the outcome of the NRC is tomorrow.”
Smith added that she expects participating countries to raise their own concerns about Russian threats in the region.
“I think with a larger number of countries at the table, there will be a broader set of perspectives on how Russia has essentially been the main threat to European security over the past two decades. And obviously, the countries that are sitting at the table have different perspectives on that; they've experienced that in different ways,” she said.
The NATO-Russia council is the second of three extraordinary diplomatic engagements happening in Europe this week and in response to what the U.S. and its allies say are Russian threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The U.S., led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, first met Russian officials in a bilateral dialogue in Geneva on Monday, called the Strategic Stability Dialogue.
Sherman will lead the U.S. side in the talks between NATO and Russia on Wednesday, and will join the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for a third meeting with Russian officials on Thursday.
Russia has said it has no plans to attack Ukraine and downplayed its massing of troops on the border. Moscow is pushing for the U.S. and NATO to commit to restricting its operations in Europe over what the Kremlin says are its concerns for Russian security.
U.S. officials have outright rejected Russian demands to cease NATO expansion, saying the alliance will never shut its open-door policy.
“We stand firm in pushing back on security proposals that are simply nonstarters,” Smith said.
But the U.S. has said it is open to dialogue about “reciprocal” actions that address Russia’s security concerns on its border with Europe and American and European security concerns with the Kremlin.
These include discussions about missile placement in Europe and Russia and greater transparency about the size and scope of military exercises on both sides.
“NATO is open and committed to a meaningful reciprocal dialogue with Russia,” Smith said.