WASHINGTON, WORLD LINES – The United States (US) and its defense pact, NATO, vehemently reject Russia’s demands that the alliance not accept new members. The demands come amid fears Russia might attack Ukraine, which aspires to join NATO.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia could not determine who should be allowed to join the bloc. They also warned Russia of a strong response to further military intervention in Ukraine.
His second statement was a complete rejection of a key part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands for easing tensions with Ukraine. Putin wants NATO to stop membership plans for all countries, including Ukraine.
The former Soviet republics are unlikely to join the alliance in the future, but NATO countries will not rule it out.
Blinken and Stoltenberg spoke separately after an extraordinary virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The North Atlantic Council meeting is the first in a series of high-level talks over the next week aimed at easing tensions.
“We are prepared to respond by force to further Russian aggression, but a diplomatic solution is still possible and preferable if Russia is willing,” Blinken told reporters in Washington.
He emphatically rejected Russia’s claim that NATO had promised not to expand eastward after the entry of several satellite states of the former Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War.
“NATO has never promised not to accept new members; it can’t and won’t,” Blinken said, accusing Putin of making arguments to distract from Russia’s military movements along the Ukrainian border.
“They want to draw us into the debate about NATO rather than focus on the problem at hand, namely their aggression against Ukraine. We will not be distracted from the problem,” said Blinken.
Blinken said Moscow was well aware that NATO would not accept the demands. “Of course part of (Putin’s) guidelines is to put out a list of charges that really doesn’t start and then claim that the other party wasn’t involved and then use that as a justification for aggressive action,” Blinken said.
Earlier in Brussels, Belgium, Stoltenberg made a similar statement. “We will not compromise on core principles, including the right for each country to decide its own path, including what security arrangements it wants to be a part of,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg said the Russian military buildup that fueled fears of an invasion continued. “We saw armored units, we saw artillery, we saw combat-ready troops, we saw electronic warfare equipment and we saw a lot of different military capabilities,” he said.
Stoltenberg said this buildup, combined with Russia’s security demands, and its track record in Ukraine and Georgia, sends a message that there is a real risk for a new armed conflict in Europe.
Russia denies that it has plans to attack Ukraine, but Putin wants legal guarantees that will rule out NATO expansion and arms deployment.
Blinken and Stoltenberg did say that the US and NATO were willing to discuss arms control with Moscow, but that Putin was not allowed to impose restrictions on how the organization protects member states close to Russia’s borders such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
“We can’t end up in a situation where we have some kind of second-class NATO member; where NATO as an alliance is not allowed to protect them in the same way we protect other allies,” he said.