By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The United States and Russia will likely hold bilateral talks to discuss Moscow’s security proposals next month as the Kremlin ramped up is rhetoric by again warning it was prepared to take military measures if the West launched “unfriendly” actions with regard to Ukraine.
“We will decide on a date together with Russia, and we believe that that will take place in January,” Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried said in a call with media on December 21.
Donfried said that NATO will be holding a meeting on December 21 to discuss inviting Russia for talks on its proposals. Meanwhile, she said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was working out how it wants to engage Russia.
“My sense is that we will be seeing movement in these channels in the month of January,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped for constructive talks with Washington and Brussels on Moscow’s security concerns, which include opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine.
“Armed conflicts and bloodshed are absolutely not something we would choose. We do not want such a scenario,” the Russian leader said.
He said Russia’s proposals were no ultimatum, but added it had nowhere to retreat over Ukraine, which Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence.
In a meeting with Defense Ministry officials, Putin took a much sharper tone, warning the West against supplying weapons to Ukraine, including missiles that could reach Moscow in minutes.
He said if the West continued its “obviously aggressive stance,” Russia would take “appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures.”
Russia “will react toughly to unfriendly steps,” Putin said, adding that he wanted to underscore that “we have every right to do so.”
His tough comments follow on Russia’s publication last week of the sweeping new security demands it is seeking from the West that would essentially give Moscow a sphere of influence in neighboring countries while rolling back many of the advances NATO has made in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since the 1990s.
The demands were laid out in the form of two draft agreements with the United States and NATO.
Donfried said that some of the demands were unacceptable and that Russia knows this, but added, “there’s merit in having a discussion” and that the West was “ready to engage.”
Addressing concerns among the military alliance’s eastern contingent, the U.S. official said that NATO will consult with all 30 members as it engages in talks with Russia.
The Russian security demands come as the Kremlin amasses about 100,000 combat-ready troops near the border with Ukraine in what the United States has said could be a prelude to an invasion as early as next month.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier in the day that Russia had continued the “groundless and unexplained” buildup of troops.
Donfried called on Russia to pull back its troops, saying talks can only succeed in an atmosphere of de-escalation.
Analysts have said the military buildup could be aimed at strengthening Russia’s position at the bargaining table with the United States and NATO.
Russia is seeking a commitment from the West that Ukraine will not join NATO, calling its membership in the alliance a “red line.” NATO has said that Ukraine would someday become a member, a move fiercely opposed by Moscow.
Most analysts say that Ukraine is at least a decade away from joining the security alliance.
Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelenskiy remained defiant in the face of Russia’s hostile posture, saying in an address on December 21 to his ambassadors that he hopes next year to attain “a very clear timeline” for NATO membership.
Earlier in the day, Stoltenberg reiterated the alliance’s support for Ukraine, saying it backed Kyiv’s “right to choose” its own geopolitical orientation.
Flurry Of Diplomacy
Russia’s buildup and security demands have sparked a flurry of diplomacy to avoid hostilities.
Putin spoke separately with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on December 21 about Moscow’s security proposals and the nearly eight-year war in eastern Ukraine.
German and France, two of the largest members of NATO, are participants in the so-called Normandy Format peace talks to end the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk, where Kremlin-backed rebels are battling government forces.
The United States this year has allocated more than $450 million in military aid to Ukraine to defend itself against possible Russian aggression, including lethal anti-tank missiles. It is also helping refit Ukraine’s ports to host NATO ships.
Donfried told media during the call that the United States would increase defense aid to Ukraine if Russia launches hostilities against the country.
She said that any Russian aggression against Ukraine would be met with powerful sanctions by the West.
“We have been clear that we would respond with strong economic measures that we have not considered in the past, and that would inflict significant costs on the Russian economy and financial system,” she said.
Donfried also said that the United States would increase defense aid to Ukraine in the event of Russian aggression.