According to Washington's top diplomat, there is no room for compromise on Moscow's key concern
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Washington will never agree to Russia's proposal to limit NATO expansion close to its borders by blocking Ukraine from trying to join the military bloc.
Speaking to reporters following talks in Geneva with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Friday, Blinken said that the American side had given a "firm and substantive" response to two draft treaties proposed by Moscow.
"I made clear to Minister Lavrov that there are certain principles that the US, our partners and allies, are committed to defend. That includes those that would impede the sovereign right of the Ukrainian people to write their own future. There is no trade-space there - none," he said.
However, he added, there was room to do a deal over a number of other issues referenced in the proposals. "On the security concerns Russia has raised in recent weeks, the US, our allies and partners are prepared to pursue a possible means of addressing them - in a spirit of reciprocity, which, simply put, means Russia must also address our concerns," he went on. "There are several steps that we can take, all of us, Russia included, to increase transparency, to reduce risks, to advance arms control, to build trust."
Blinken added that "we stand firmly with Ukraine in support of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have been clear - if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine's border... it will be met with a swift, severe and united response from the US, our partners and allies." In addition, he claimed, any other forms of "Russian aggression," such as cyberattacks, would be met with a similar response.
The White House came under fire earlier this week after President Joe Biden hinted during a press conference that a "minor incursion" into Ukraine may not be met with a severe response. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky hit back on Thursday in an effort to remind world leaders that "there are no minor incursions and small nations."
Among the proposals put forward by Russia and discussed with Western diplomats is a demand that the US-led military bloc issue written guarantees that it will not expand further toward Russia's borders, effectively blocking Ukraine from future membership. In addition, Moscow insists that NATO should refrain from military activity on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact states that joined after 1997, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has criticized Moscow's requests, saying that the country has no veto on Ukraine's efforts to join the bloc, and that it will not accept a "two-tier" membership system that prevents it from deploying troops in certain states.
Russia insists the measures are necessary to avoid conflict, with President Vladimir Putin saying that the West "cheated" Russia by giving assurances in the 1990s that the bloc would not expand into the space left by the fall of the Soviet Union. Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states were subsequently admitted.