Russia Asks NATO to Halt Any Expansion Plans Amid Security Talks With U.S.

Russia is demanding that NATO forgo any expansion plans in Europe in exchange for limiting its war games and other aggressive actions, according to a draft agreement made available to the public.

Russia's appeal came amid ongoing security talks with the U.S., which is concerned the country is planning to invade former Soviet republic Ukraine, and ahead of Wednesday's rare meeting between Russia and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding that NATO halt any plans to add Ukraine to NATO. He also is calling on the military organization to reduce its presence in nations near Russia, like Estonia, and refrain from deploying additional military forces and weaponry in Europe.

While Putin claims his conditions are simple, his demand that any new memberships in NATO be halted could jeopardize approval of the agreement. An article in NATO's founding accord, the 1949 Washington Treaty, permits the alliance to extend an invitation to any European country that wants to join, can contribute to security in the North Atlantic area and abide by other membership obligations.

NATO members are not eager to abandon that protocol.

"It has become crystal clear that not a single ally inside the NATO alliance is willing to budge or negotiate anything as it relates to NATO's open-door policy," Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Tuesday. "I cannot imagine any scenario where that is up for discussion."

After Wednesday's meeting between NATO and Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance and Russia intend to schedule more meetings, but they still remain divided on Ukraine.

"There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on this issue," he told reporters.

Russia NATO Request
Russia is demanding that NATO forgo any expansion plans in Europe. Above, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference on December 23, 2021. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reaffirmed Wednesday that any European country should have the right to join NATO if it wants to, despite Russia's insistence that the military organization stop inviting new members, particularly Ukraine.

"I reaffirmed the fundamental principles of the international system and of European security: Every country has the sovereign right to choose its own path," Sherman tweeted, as senior NATO and Russian officials met to try to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences over Ukraine's future.

The NATO-Russia Council was the first meeting of its kind in over two years. The forum was set up two decades ago, but full meetings paused when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It has met only sporadically since, the last time in July 2019.

Stoltenberg, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin were stern-faced before the talks. There was no public handshake, although the Russian delegation fist-bumped officials from the 30 NATO member countries inside the meeting venue. Sherman led the U.S. team at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

With around 100,000 combat-ready Russian troops backed by tanks, artillery and heavy equipment massed near Ukraine's eastern border, Wednesday's gathering has taken on great significance, yet it still seems destined to fail.

"These are completely unacceptable proposals," Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet told public broadcaster ERR on the eve of the talks. Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, relies on U.S. security guarantees provided by its membership in NATO.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that Russia expects a quick answer.

"The situation regarding European security and our national interests has reached a critical line," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. He branded the organization "an instrument of confrontation."

"The alliance has been conceived as such, and it's how it has been organized and is developing now. It's quite obvious, so the expansion of this mechanism poses a threat to us," he said.

He declined to say what measures Russia might take if talks fail, saying that Moscow "wouldn't like to issue threats and ultimatums and warn that others will pay a high price, as U.S. officials do," Peskov said.

Maksim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, says the lack of any real Russian concessions in Putin's draft agreement probably means that "Russia is ready to tolerate a failure of these negotiations."

The idea, Samorukov said, is to "demonstrate to the West that we are serious, we mean business. That Russia is really ready to take drastic steps to impose these concessions" on the U.S.-led military organization.

Still, NATO can't afford to ignore Russia's offer. Some members fear that Putin may be seeking a pretext to launch an invasion—like the failure of the West to engage—and any talks that would ease tensions over border forces, missile deployments or war games would be welcome.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

NATO Talks on Ukraine
After a meeting between NATO and Russia on Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance and Russia intend to schedule more meetings, but they still remain divided on Ukraine. Above, Stoltenberg at a press conference during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia, on November 30, 2021. Gints Ivuskans/AFP via Getty Images