Russian President Vladimir Putin will bear the blame for Russian soldiers “coming home in body bags” if he orders a new invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s administration said in response to the Kremlin’s latest high-stakes maneuver.
“The Russian people don’t need a war with Ukraine,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday. “They don’t need their sons coming home in body bags. They don’t need another foreign adventure. ... So we hope that President Putin will take this opportunity for diplomacy and will also listen to the needs of his own people.”
That stark warning followed the release of a “draft treaty” proposal from Moscow that Russian officials portray as a resolution to the standoff, which has intensified as Russian forces amass near Ukraine's borders. Yet the Russian document demands not only that NATO promise never to admit Ukraine to the alliance, but it also goes so far as to demand the removal of U.S. and Western European forces from Central and Eastern Europe — a rollback that would amount to a practical breakup of NATO.
“It’s not even valid to consider it,” a Baltic official told the Washington Examiner on condition of anonymity. “If a country wants to leave NATO, then, of course, it’s a sovereign decision by any democratic country. ... It’s not a decision that’s up to Russia.”
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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov urged U.S. officials “to regard the Russian proposals with the utmost seriousness” to mitigate the risk of violence.
“The global situation remains rather tense, and it is in our best interests to find ways to resolve this,” he said, per state media. "We are interested in peace and stability on the European continent. Russian President [Vladimir] Putin has repeatedly stated that we do not need conflicts.”
U.S. officials, like NATO more broadly, maintain that the risk of conflict is emanating from Russia. "We remain gravely concerned with the large and unprovoked Russian buildup on Ukraine’s borders," the senior administration official said. "If there is any further aggression against Ukraine, that will have massive consequences and will carry a high price."
Putin describes the accession of countries such as Poland and Estonia as a security threat and a violation of a decades-old promise not to expand NATO. Such a promise was never made, according to Western officials and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, and NATO leaders counter in any case that countries join the organization in search of protection against a possible Russian invasion.
"This stance doesn’t help,” Ryabkov said Friday. “We put forward proposals, the other side puts forward ultimatums, and dangerous activity is being continued under the pretext of these ultimatums which has a negative impact on our security interests. We can’t tolerate it any longer.”
The latest Russian proposal calls for a withdrawal of U.S. and Western European military forces from several NATO member-states: “The Russian Federation and all the Parties that were member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as of 27 May 1997, respectively, shall not deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other States in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997.”
That date, which marked the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, predates two rounds of NATO expansion. Thus, the new Russian proposal would deprive 10 countries that joined NATO after gaining independence from the fallen Soviet Union of allied military presence.
“There are no different layers of security among NATO member-states,” said the Baltic official, whose country was one of seven that joined NATO in 2004. “It goes against NATO principles and probably even the NATO treaty, so it can’t be even on the negotiating table.”
Biden’s team likewise faulted Russia for making unserious proposals. “There are some things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable,” the senior administration official said. "They know that. But there are other things that we are prepared to work with and that merit some discussion.”
Russia’s proposal that “telephone hotlines shall be established to maintain emergency contacts” is one of the more sensible ideas in the document, according to the Baltic official, who suggested that the extravagance of the other demands raises the possibility that Moscow seeks a pretext for an attack on Ukraine.
“If Russia wants to invade Ukraine, it has to build up public opinion [to be] less hostile to the invasion,” the official said. “So one of the steps is to show: ‘Look, we proposed we don’t feel secure, we had security concerns we proposed to the West, but the West didn’t listen to us.’”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stoked those misgivings by saying that if other countries have a right to join NATO, by the same token, Russia “is able to define its own interests to guarantee their security.”
Biden’s administration underscored Friday “that de-escalation is absolutely essential” if Russia wants to have a substantive negotiation about security guarantees.
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“We are consulting with allies and partners now, including at NATO, on the issue of formats and how to address the menu of issues of interest to Russia, as well as the menu of issues of interest to us,” the senior administration official said. “But again, we will have also, I would guess, quite a list of our own concerns about Russia’s posture and behavior that we will want to bring to the table as well.”