Russian Envoy Says NATO Seeks Strength by Weakening Russia, Fate of Talks Lie With Putin

With tensions still flaring in Eastern Europe, Moscow's ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, has accused the United States and its NATO alliance of seeking to bolster their security at the expense of Russia, a strategy Antonov told Newsweek has hampered diplomatic efforts.

And once Moscow officials finish mulling over Washington's recent proposal to de-escalate a burgeoning crisis at the border between Ukraine and Russia, Antonov said Russian President Vladimir Putin would then decide if talks worth continuing.

So far, the Russian envoy said, the results have not inspired confidence.

"I would like to emphasize that we are not very enthusiastic about the essence of the U.S. (and NATO) responses," Antonov said. "Washington suggests focusing on important, but basically secondary issues."

The U.S. has put Ukraine at the forefront of the conversation at a time when more than 100,000 Russian troops have amassed near the border of the neighboring former Soviet republic. Russian officials have repeatedly denied any plans to invade but have demanded broader assurances for their own country's security, which includes the exclusion of Ukraine from NATO, something the U.S. and its allies have so far refused to offer.

"The United States concentrates on the right of states to choose alliances, enshrined in the declarations of the Istanbul (1999) and Astana (2010) OSCE Summits," Antonov said. "At the same time, it ignores the fact that these particular documents condition this right on the obligation not to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of others.

"The main problem is that NATO countries are strengthening their security by weakening Russia," he added. "We do not agree with such an approach."

The remarks came after mixed messages emerged in U.S. media as State Department officials were cited in a number of outlets Monday saying they had received a response from Moscow to Washington's recent proposal. Both U.S. and Russian officials later clarified that the document was not a formal reply.

Antonov sought to set the record straight.

"Due to the passion of U.S. colleagues for vague wordings and the aspiration to push the negotiations on security guarantees behind closed doors, the public has a wrong picture about what stage this process is at," Antonov told Newsweek.

He then explained the timeline of the high-stakes diplomacy that has unfolded between two of the world's most powerful nations since December, when Biden and Putin held a virtual summit focusing on the issue. About a week after the heads of state met, Russia shared draft treaties with the U.S. and its NATO alliance, but the progress of diplomacy has since slowed.

"We presented to the U.S. administration our proposals on legally binding security guarantees on December 15 and published the texts of draft agreements with the United States and NATO on December 17," Antonov said. "We received written reactions from Washington and Brussels only the previous week—on January 26. Thus, it took our Western partners more than five weeks to prepare the answers."

And given the current track of these conversations, success was far from guaranteed, he noted.

"We are currently conducting an interagency analysis of the documents provided to us," Antonov said. "Its results will be reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin who will decide on the feasibility of further dialogue."

Russia, President, Putin, Talks, Hungary, Orban
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (not pictured) at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 1. "Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations [to retake Crimea]," Putin said. "Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone thought about this? It appears not." Russian Presidential Press Office

Putin addressed the discrepancy in priorities of the U.S. and Russia following a meeting Tuesday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose nation is a member of NATO but enjoys good relations with Moscow.

Speaking at the Kremlin, the Russian leader said he had informed the visiting Hungarian head of state that "the fundamental Russian concerns were ignored" by the U.S. in its plan to resolve the ongoing feud.

"We have not seen adequate consideration of our three key demands regarding the prevention of NATO expansion, the renunciation of the deployment of strike weapons systems near Russian borders, and the return of the military infrastructure of the bloc in Europe to the state of 1997, when the Russia-NATO Founding Act was signed," Putin said.

And, like Antonov, Putin argued that "it's not just about giving someone the right to freely choose how to ensure their security."

"After all, this is only one part of the well-known formula for the indivisibility of security," he continued. "The second inalienable part says that one should not allow anyone's security to be strengthened at the expense of the security of other states."

He also went into detail about the concerns that his government has long expressed regarding the expansion of NATO and the movement of its troops and weapons systems to nations once part of the Soviet bloc and located along Russia's borders such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The U.S. has argued that the shoring up of NATO's eastern flank began after unrest first erupted in Ukraine during 2014 when a pro-West political uprising was followed by a Moscow-aligned insurgency taking parts of the eastern Donbas region and Russia's internationally disputed annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Putin points to even earlier developments such as the U.S. exit two decades ago from the Cold War-era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Washington's withdrawal paved the way for the deployment of advanced missile defenses to be deployed in the likes of Poland and Romania. The Kremlin has claimed such weapons could be fitted for offensive purposes, a development now possible after the U.S. abandoned another longstanding agreement, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 after accusing Russia of violating it first.

As this row continues to simmer, Putin said that Ukraine's potential acceptance into NATO could prove a flashpoint as Kyiv continues to set out to regain Crimea.

"Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations," Putin said. "Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone thought about this? It appears not."

He charged Washington with potentially trying to lure Moscow into a conflict as U.S. negotiators ostensibly ignored the primary security demands put forth by the Kremlin.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, however, told reporters Tuesday that President Joe Biden's administration was "absolutely" still open for talks and "the door for diplomacy remains open."

She referenced Secretary of State Antony Blinken's call earlier that same day with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"The Secretary emphasized the U.S. willingness, bilaterally and together with Allies and partners, to continue a substantive exchange with Russia on mutual security concerns, which we intend to do in full coordination with our partners and Allies," Psaki said. "He reiterated the United States commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and alliances.

"He also urged immediate Russian de-escalation and the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Ukraine's borders," she added, "and was clear that further invasion of Ukraine would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path."

The conversation appeared to do little to bridge the rift between the world's two largest nuclear powers as they faced one of their most serious standoffs since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Antonov, for his part, told Newsweek that on Friday, days before the top diplomats' call, Lavrov sent a message to his U.S. counterpart "in which Russia insists that the agreement on the indivisibility of security should be implemented in good faith."

"We want to receive confirmation of the commitments made by the United States earlier," Antonov said. "Otherwise, it is necessary to honestly explain why the United States and its allies do not want to follow the decisions agreed to by all of our nations."

And with diplomacy at stake, the ambassador said U.S. allies also have yet to offer such assurances.

"I would like to stress that this request was sent not only to the United States, but also to the heads of the foreign ministries of Canada and a number of European countries whose signatures are under the abovementioned declarations," Antonov said. "We hope that our Western colleagues will not delay an answer."

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A Msta-S-M2 self-propelled howitzer is seen under the command of Russia's Western Military District, which borders Ukraine, as additional units were sent to artillery forces on February 1. Russian Ministry of Defense