Fears rose Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is intent on invading Ukraine, as U.S. and NATO talks with Russian officials failed to produce a commitment from Moscow to draw down its major troop buildup along the border with the developing U.S.-aligned democracy.
The Biden administration and top NATO officials sought to put a positive spin on the high-stakes talks. Analysts warned that the Kremlin has exploited meetings this week in Brussels and Vienna to buy time to prepare for a move against Ukraine.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, head of the American delegation, told reporters that U.S. and NATO officials stood firm in rejecting key Russian security demands for easing tensions over Ukraine, but left open the possibility of further talks with Moscow.
The special meeting in Brussels was the first gathering in more than two years of the so-called NATO-Russia Council, which is designed to prevent clashes between the alliance and Moscow. Ms. Sherman framed it as a “remarkable expression of the power of diplomacy.”
Still, with the Russians refusing to back down from demands that NATO remove troops and equipment from former Soviet republics that border Russia, the meeting ended with a “sober challenge from the NATO allies” for Moscow to embrace a diplomatic solution to the escalating standoff, Ms. Sherman said.
She bluntly acknowledged that she did not know, after multiple days of talks with Russian officials, whether or not some 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border would invade. “Is this about invasion? Is this about intimidation? Is this about trying to be subversive?” Ms. Sherman said. “I don’t know, but it is not conducive to getting to diplomatic solutions.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russian and NATO officials held a “serious and direct exchange” and that the Western military alliance still has deep concerns about the Kremlin’s policy but hopes for more talks to ease the crisis.
The NATO-Russia Council met for four hours, slightly longer than budgeted. Mr. Stoltenberg said it was a good sign that the two sides were talking directly after weeks of threats and brinkmanship that have raised concerns along Russia’s western border.
“Our differences will not be easy to bridge, but it is a positive sign that all NATO allies and Russia sat down around the same table and engaged on substantive topics,” he told reporters in Brussels.
Concerns have been growing for months that Mr. Putin is looking to expand on his gains of 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The former Soviet republic has a pro-Western government and for years has been the scene of tense geopolitical wrangling between Moscow and the West.
“The reason there’s a crisis is because we’re seeing about 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, with, of course, echoes of the events of 2014 and 2015,” said Simon Miles, a Russia expert at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Those troops are engaging in not only just massing in significant quantities, they’re engaging in live-fire exercises — that is, practicing war,” Mr. Miles said Wednesday in a virtual briefing for journalists. “And we’re seeing information operations, disinformation and things like that emanating from this massive Russian presence.”
At the same time, Mr. Miles said, it is not clear whether Mr. Putin will order an invasion. “I don’t think even [Russian diplomats] know what Putin’s ultimate end game is,” he said.
He added that the Russian security establishment widely shares Mr. Putin’s frustration with NATO’s expansion.
“Russian leaders are unhappy with the growth of NATO ever eastward,” Mr. Miles said. “They’re unhappy with this because it’s humiliating, I think it’s fair to say, to a lot of Russians, not just in the Kremlin. It also calls into question some of their serious security concerns over defending their own territory.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Grushko emerged from the meeting Wednesday expressing doubts about NATO’s claim that it is a purely defensive grouping that poses no direct threat to Russia. He said Moscow will respond in kind to any NATO attempt to contain or intimidate Russia.
“If there is a search for vulnerabilities in the Russian defense system, then there will also be a search for vulnerabilities in NATO,” Mr. Grushko said, according to Reuters. “This is not our choice, but there will be no other path if we fail to reverse the current very dangerous course of events.”
He said Moscow was ready to talk more with NATO about such issues as weapons deployment and verification measures, but the Kremlin would not allow its broad set of security proposals to be cherry-picked.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told the Russian Interfax news agency that NATO’s “ignoring” of Russian security proposals creates the risk of “incidents and conflicts.”
The NATO meeting was one of a trio of extraordinary diplomatic meetings this week aimed at heading off a shooting war in Ukraine, where Russia has been escalating its support of a pro-Moscow separatist movement fighting the Western-backed government in Kyiv.
U.S. and Russian diplomats conferred directly Monday in Geneva. The Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe, which includes Russia and Ukraine, is scheduled to discuss the crisis Friday in Vienna.
The Biden administration has said it is willing to discuss Russian concerns about the rising militarization of border areas across Eastern Europe, but it has rejected out of hand a Moscow demand that former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia be forever barred from full NATO membership.
Mr. Putin has indicated that he also wants NATO to withdraw its troops and military equipment from all countries that border Russia, including Ukraine and NATO allies Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Ms. Sherman told reporters that some of Mr. Putin’s security demands “are simply nonstarters.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said NATO’s 30 member countries are united against Russia’s more sweeping demands. He expressed hope for more talks with Russia on European security issues but said that depended on Mr. Putin.
“NATO made it clear in the meeting that we are ready to schedule a series of meetings addressing a wide range of different topics, including missiles and reciprocal verifiable limits on missiles, in Europe. From the Russian side, they made clear that they are not ready,” the NATO leader said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.