U.S. and NATO urge Putin to take “diplomatic path” while bracing for Ukraine invasion

The U.S. and NATO provided Russia with written proposals on Wednesday to advance a “diplomatic path forward,” even as they warned that Russia could invade Ukraine within days.

Why it matters: This is a delicate diplomatic balancing act. The U.S. and NATO want to show they’re serious about diplomacy but unwilling to compromise on “core principles” — all without providing Vladimir Putin with an additional pretext for escalation.

Get market news worthy of your time with Axios Markets. Subscribe for free.

The backstory: In December, as Russia was building up its now 100,000-strong troop presence on Ukraine’s borders and the U.S. was calling for de-escalation, Moscow submitted written demands including that NATO rule out eastward expansion, roll back its presence in Eastern Europe and keep offensive weapons systems out of Ukraine.

  • In back-to-back press conference on Wednesday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said they had responded to Russia’s demands in separate but “mutually reinforcing” documents. Blinken said there were no concessions on key issues like NATO’s “open door policy.”

  • In addition, the U.S. and NATO made proposals of their own. Blinken emphasized the issue of arms control in his press conference and referenced a proposal for negotiations on a successor to the New START nuclear treaty.

  • Stoltenberg added that NATO had proposed steps to increase communication and reduce risks, including a potential new civilian hotline and increased transparency around military exercises.

Between the lines: Analysts have been warning that handing Putin a formal rejection of his security demands could help make his case for war with Ukraine.

  • “We decided to reply in written form because we take very seriously the idea of making progress, we’ve listened to the Russian concerns,” Stoltenberg said. He added that this process had allowed for “more concrete” and detailed proposals, though “there’s no secret that we’re far apart.”

  • Blinken said the U.S. would keep the documents private to “provide space for confidential talks” and hoped Russia would do the same. When a reporter joked that Moscow would soon leak them, Blinken acknowledged that possibility.

  • Blinken said President Biden was personally “deeply involved” in shaping the proposals.

State of play: Stoltenberg said NATO allies were already deploying ships and aircraft to shore up the alliance’s eastern flank, and that an initial force of around 5,000 troops could be deployed “within days,” under French command. Blinken noted that 8,500 U.S. troops were prepared to supplement that force.

  • The intention would not be to defend Ukraine from invasion, but to reassure allies in eastern Europe and signal to Putin that an invasion would result in a bigger NATO presence in the region.

  • Blinken also said more U.S.-made weapons would arrive in Kyiv in the days to come to supplement the three deliveries already made this week. He also confirmed that the U.S. intends to send five military helicopters.

What they’re saying: “While hoping for and working toward de-escalation, we also are prepared for the worst,” Stoltenberg said.

  • He expressed grave concerns about the troops and equipment Russia is rapidly moving into Belarus “under the disguise of an exercise.” An invasion from Belarusian soil could give Russia a relatively short and lightly defended path to Kyiv.

  • Blinken said U.S. citizens should “strongly consider leaving” Ukraine, but insisted the U.S. embassy would remain operational even as non-essential personnel were withdrawn.

What’s next: Stoltenberg said he’d invited Russia to participate in a series of meetings with NATO to discuss the issues presented in the documents. He didn’t say whether he expected Moscow to accept.

  • Blinken said he expected to speak to his Russian counterpart soon, once Moscow had read and analyzed the U.S. proposals.

  • Russia has denied any intention of invading Ukraine, but said that if the U.S. won’t agree to its demands it will undertake a “military-technical response.”

Like this article? Get more from Axios and subscribe to Axios Markets for free.