U.S. Offers ‘Diplomatic Path’ in Answer to Russian Demands

Date: 2022-01-26T10:06:38.000Z

Location: www.nytimes.com

The United States and NATO gave formal responses on Wednesday to Russia’s demands that NATO pull back forces from Eastern Europe and ban Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, amid escalating military tensions in Eastern Europe.

Russia had been insisting for weeks that the United States provide written responses to the Kremlin’s demands before it would decide on its next course of action, while asserting that it had no plans to invade Ukraine.

Both Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, had personally delivered the United States’ written response to the ministry. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said NATO had also sent its reply.

The American response “sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it,” Mr. Blinken said at a news briefing in Washington. He said he expected to speak in the coming days with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, once Russian officials had read the American paper and were “ready to discuss next steps.”

The document suggests “reciprocal transparency measures regarding force posture in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe,” Mr. Blinken said, as well as nuclear arms control in Europe.

The Biden administration has already made such proposals, so it is unclear whether the American response will have any effect on the growing crisis over Russia’s huge troop buildup along Ukraine’s borders.

“It reiterates publicly what we’ve said for many weeks,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Blinken said that the United States had not moved from its refusal to consider ruling out the possibility of future Ukrainian membership in NATO, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded. But President Biden and other American officials have said there is little possibility Ukraine could join the alliance anytime soon.

“We make clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend, including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances,” Mr. Blinken said.

Russia has also demanded that the United States remove nuclear weapons from Europe and withdraw troops and weapons from former Soviet bloc countries that joined the alliance after 1997. The United States has deemed those demands “nonstarters.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Mr. Sullivan had delivered the American response in a meeting with the deputy foreign minister, Aleksandr V. Grushko. The terse ministry statement gave no indication of the document’s contents.

Mr. Blinken said that the United States’ response was drafted in close consultation with European allies. “There’s no daylight among the United States and our allies and partners on these matters,” he said.

Mr. Stoltenberg said at an evening news conference that NATO’s reply to Russia, like the American one, contained proposals for specific areas of negotiation about arms control and transparency of military exercises, and suggested reopening liaison offices between NATO and Moscow.

“A political solution is still possible,” he said. “But Russia has to engage.”

At the same time, NATO has increased the readiness of a 5,000-member rapid-response force, currently led by France, able to deploy quickly to support alliance members. Mr. Stoltenberg noted the continuing buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine and, most worrying, he suggested, the integration of Russian and Belarusian forces “under the disguise of an exercise” with sophisticated weapons, including S400 air-defense systems.

The United States would not release its response publicly, Mr. Blinken said, adding that he hoped Russia would take the same approach. There is no guarantee that Moscow — known for its defiant negotiating tactics — will heed Washington’s appeal.

Mr. Blinken did not indicate what he expected next from the Russians, or when.

“Whether they choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue, whether they decide to renew aggression against Ukraine,” he said, “we’re prepared either way.”

Michael Schwirtz and Steven Erlanger contributed reporting.

Any U.S. sanctions levied personally against President Vladimir V. Putin would not affect Russia’s course of action on Ukraine, the Kremlin spokesman said on Wednesday, brushing off President Biden’s statement on Tuesday that he would be willing to impose such penalties if Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Diplomatic talks to resolve the crisis have yielded nothing but promises to keep talking, and while all sides say they want de-escalation, the war of words between Washington and Moscow is intensifying.

In that context, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said personal sanctions would be counterproductive, while having little financial effect. “It wouldn’t be painful politically — it would be destructive,” he said.

For weeks, the Biden administration has warned Russia that it would impose punishing economic sanctions if it invaded Ukraine. In a brief White House appearance on Tuesday, Mr. Biden gave what appeared to be an off-the-cuff response to a shouted question from a reporter about whether those penalties could directly target Mr. Putin. “Yes, I would see that,” the president said. He did not elaborate.

It is not clear exactly what moves Mr. Biden is weighing, or whether sanctions against Mr. Putin are even being actively considered.

But American openness to targeting the leader of a world power directly reflects the administration’s intent to deter Russian aggression by conveying the high costs it would incur.

Russia has said it has no intention of invading Ukraine, despite massing forces along the country’s borders to the north, east and south. Mr. Putin has not commented publicly on the crisis since Dec. 23, silence that has kept Western leaders unsure about his next move.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Biden said he expected that Russia would ultimately invade Ukraine. But he acknowledged on Tuesday how hard it could be to read the Russian leader.

“I’ll be completely honest with you: It’s a little bit like reading tea leaves,” he said, according to a White House transcript. “Ordinarily, if it were a different leader — the fact that he continues to build forces along Ukraine’s border from Belarus all the way around — you’d say, ‘Well, that means that he is looking like he’s going to do something.’ But then you look at what his past behavior is and what everyone is saying in his team, as well as everyone else, as to what is likely to happen: It all comes down to his — his decision.”

Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, signaled on Wednesday that her government would also consider directly targeting Mr. Putin with sanctions.

Because Moscow has demanded that NATO forces essentially withdraw from the region — a request that American officials have described as a nonstarter — the path to a diplomatic solution is hard to see.

Both Russia and Western nations have stepped up military activity, with Russia holding drills near the Ukrainian borders, the United States putting 8,500 troops on high alert for deployment, and NATO increasing its deployments in the region.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

President Biden and other Western leaders have already threatened Russia with harsh sanctions if President Vladimir V. Putin moves troops into Ukraine. As tensions escalated this week, Mr. Biden warned the Russian president he might personally target him with sanctions if Russian forces invaded.

But how personal is personal?

While it was unclear exactly what measures Mr. Biden was referring to, the administration can move to seize an individual’s assets and bar travel to the United States by adding the person to what is known as the Specially Designated Nationals list. But it is far from clear that such a move would matter to Mr. Putin.

The Obama administration weighed sanctioning Mr. Putin personally after the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. But the White House decided against it, in part to avoid the appearance of a direct clash between two presidents, which Mr. Putin might relish.

Although he is believed to have amassed a great deal of personal wealth, it’s highly unlikely that any of it is in the United States. And any wealth Mr. Putin has is not only well hidden from Americans but within Russia as well, said James Nixey, the director of the Russia-Eurasia program at the Chatham House, a research organization in London.

“A lot of his personal wealth seems owned or safeguarded by his cronies,” Mr. Nixey said. When a controversy erupted over a palatial estate on the Black Sea said to belong to Mr. Putin, for example, the Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenberg stepped up to say he was the owner.

In addition, U.S. officials say that Russians have become more adept at shielding their wealth from sanctions over the last several years.

A travel ban, experts said, would also have limited impact.

“They can stop Vladimir Putin from vacationing in Disneyland,” said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“These types of actions have been taken in the past against leaders of second-, third- and fourth-rate powers, not generally against major adversaries, because you still have to deal with them,” Mr. Schott said. “This is not going to change anything.”

Experts said that personal sanctions on leaders like Mr. Putin are very difficult to implement. Mr. Nixey said that what would probably be more effective “is to target the people around him, the inner circle.”

Some of Putin’s inner circle, he said, clearly does have assets abroad, and they frequently travel, shop, send their children to school or live outside of Russia. “If his closest allies are not enjoying the type of life they want to lead,” Mr. Nixey said, that would put pressure on Mr. Putin over the longer run. But sanctions against members of this group have not been very harsh so far, he added.

“The West is playing a game of chicken right now,” Mr. Nixey said. “We’ve tried no sanctions, and fairly weak sanctions,” but not very tough ones.

Other penalties targeting Russia’s giant energy companies and banks would hurt more, but the pain could be felt even more sharply in Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia.

“The question is whether the U.S. and Europe are ready to bear the cost of this,” said Maria Shagina, a visiting fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Correction:

Jan. 27, 2022

An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the visiting fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. She is Maria Shagina, not Marina.

MOSCOW — Amid all the fear and guesswork over the possibility that President Vladimir V. Putin could soon order an attack on Ukraine, one man has been conspicuously silent: Mr. Putin.

In November and December, Mr. Putin spoke out about Ukraine repeatedly, pairing Russia’s ominous military buildup with threatening messaging. At an end-of-the-year news conference on Dec. 23, Mr. Putin warned that Russia needed “guarantees” that Ukraine would never join the NATO alliance, “right away, right now.”

That news conference, more than a month ago, was the last time that Mr. Putin spoke out about the current crisis over Ukraine, or about Russia’s demands that NATO roll back its presence in Eastern Europe. Ever since — even as Russian and American diplomats sparred in Geneva, Ukraine received Western weapons deliveries and President Biden predicted Mr. Putin would mount an invasion — Mr. Putin has said nothing about the matter in public.

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin held a video conference with Italian executives about doing business in Russia. In his televised opening remarks, Mr. Putin discussed Moscow’s candidacy to host the Expo 2030 world’s fair and spoke at length about green-energy investment opportunities. He said nothing about the war fears and sanctions threats that have the Russian economy hanging in the balance.

“We’re in a suspended state,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Putin is laying low.”

As with all things when it comes to Mr. Putin’s foreign policy, the president’s remarkable silence in a high-stakes drama that revolves around him appeared designed, in part, to keep the West guessing at his intentions. It stood in contrast to the relentless speculation in Washington, where Mr. Biden has been asked repeatedly to render judgment on the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. And it underscored the Kremlin’s discipline in controlling its message, with officials insisting that they would not make any decisions until the United States submitted a written response to Russia’s demands to halt the expansion of NATO.

“Let’s first get the response,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said this week when asked about Russia’s stance. “Then the position will be formulated based on the conceptual guidelines provided by the head of state.”

PARIS — Bringing together senior Russian and Ukrainian officials, France and Germany tried on Wednesday to coax the countries into easing tensions between them, before planned talks on Friday between the French and Russian presidents.

With Russian forces massed near the borders of Ukraine, senior diplomats at the gathering known as the Normandy Format — a diplomatic grouping of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine that has met occasionally since 2014 — discussed how to lower the temperature in their standoff.

After more than eight hours of talks in Paris, the group released a statement, through the French presidency, reaffirming unconditional support for the 2015 cease-fire, updated in 2020, between Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and the government in Kyiv.

The statement made no direct mention of worries about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, as the discussions focused instead on the cease-fire agreement, known as the Minsk Accord, which the Normandy group helped broker. The diplomats will meet again in Berlin in two weeks, it said.

A senior official in the French presidency said the discussions were “difficult” but somewhat encouraging. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with French government practice, said the meeting was a way to “test the willingness of the Russians to negotiate.”

“Our conclusion is that we got the sign of re-engagement that we were looking for,” the official said.

For President Emmanuel Macron of France, the meeting offered an opportunity to showcase Europeans trying to solve Europe’s problems. He has made what he calls “European strategic autonomy” — in other words, greater independence from the United States — a central theme of his presidency, while positioning himself as Europe’s de facto leader.

The meeting on Wednesday brought together the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, Dmitri Kozak, and the Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak. They were joined by the top diplomatic advisers to Mr. Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany.

Russia’s core demand is that Ukraine never become a member of NATO. In 2008, NATO leaders declared that Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics, “will become members of NATO.”

The timing for such membership was left open, and there has been little or no progress toward it in the almost 14 years since, but the statement has remained a thorn in Russia’s side. For Mr. Putin, it was part of a series of humiliating faits accomplis presented to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as NATO has expanded east and lands that had been under Moscow’s thumb moved into the Western sphere. Now the Russian leader seems determined to impose his own outcomes on the ground.

Separate talks on Ukraine between the United States and Russia, held mainly in Geneva in recent months, have left France uneasy. “President Biden and Putin in Geneva discussing Europe eclipses Macron,” said Jacques Rupnik, a prominent political scientist. “So this meeting today was important for him on the symbolic level.”

With a presidential election looming in April, the longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel now gone, and France holding the rotating presidency of the European Union for the first time since 2008, Mr. Macron is eager to demonstrate decisive European leadership. It is not clear, however, that the rest of Europe is prepared to follow him.

The Normandy group formed after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. It offered a context for talks that exclude the United States, without getting bogged down in U.S.-Russia disputes. Its name stems from the date of the group’s creation, June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, during World War II.

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it was working with gas and crude oil suppliers from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia to bolster supplies to Europe in the coming weeks, in an effort to blunt the threat that Russia could cut off fuel shipments in the escalating conflict over Ukraine.

European allies have been cautious in public about how far they would go in placing severe sanctions on Moscow if it invades Ukraine. Germany has been especially wary; it has shuttered many of its nuclear plants, increasing its dependence on natural gas imports to generate electricity.

Many European officials have said they suspect President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia instigated the current crisis in the depths of winter for a reason, calculating that he has more leverage if he can threaten to turn off Russian fuel sales to Europe.

So in recent weeks, American officials have been planning an effort that has echoes of the Berlin airlift, the attempt to keep West Berlin supplied in the face of a Soviet blockade in 1948 and 1949. That event led to the creation of NATO, the defensive alliance that Mr. Putin is hoping to undercut by massing troops along the Ukrainian border, and by demanding that NATO pull back from what he has called Russia’s “sphere of influence.”

KYIV, Ukraine — Despite Russia’s military buildup at the Ukrainian border, NATO forces on alert and the United States warning that an attack could come imminently, Ukraine’s leadership is playing down the Russian threat.

That has left analysts guessing about the leadership’s motivation. Some say it is to keep the Ukrainian markets stable, prevent panic and avoid provoking Moscow, while others attribute it to the country’s uneasy acceptance that conflict with Russia is part of Ukraine’s daily existence.

Already this week, Ukraine’s defense minister asserted that there had been no change in the Russian forces compared with a buildup in the spring; the head of the national security council accused some Western countries and news media outlets of overstating the danger for geopolitical purposes; and a Foreign Ministry spokesman took a swipe at the United States and Britain for pulling families of diplomats from embassies in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

This week’s proclamations came after an address to the nation last week by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he asked: “What’s new? Isn’t this the reality for eight years?”

How to interpret the threat from Russian troops and equipment massed at Ukraine’s border is a subject of intense debate. Ukraine’s own military intelligence service now says there are at least 127,000 troops on the border, significantly more than were deployed by Russia in the spring buildup.

That does not yet include the troops arriving in neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally, ahead of military exercises next month. The United States says those drills could be used as a pretext to place forces within striking distance of Kyiv.

Even so, in an interview on Monday with the Ukrainian television station ICTV, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about.

“Today, at this very moment, not a single strike group of the Russian armed forces has been established, which attests to the fact that tomorrow they are not going to invade,” Mr. Reznikov said. “That is why I ask you to not spread panic.”

There are different reasons for the disconnect in messaging between Ukrainian officials and their American counterparts, analysts say. Mr. Zelensky must be deft in drafting a message that keeps Western aid flowing, does not provoke Russia and reassures the Ukrainian people.

And after eight years of war with Russia, experts say, Ukrainians simply calculate the threat differently than their Western allies.

As the United States issued warnings last month about the Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and President Biden threatened President Vladimir V. Putin with sanctions if he launched an invasion, researchers noticed an uptick in social media posts accusing Ukraine of plotting a genocide against ethnic Russians.

In one example, an arm of the Moscow-controlled broadcaster RT circulated a clip of Mr. Putin saying that events in eastern Ukraine “resemble genocide.” News Front, which the State Department has called a disinformation outlet with ties to Russian security services, followed with an article on Dec. 13 that said the United States did not consider the massacres to be a genocide.

In the months since the Russian troop buildup began, Moscow and its online army of allies have pushed out old arguments about western Ukrainians being aligned with Nazism, have falsely accused the United States of using proxy forces to plot a chemical attack and have claimed that Russia’s planned military operations were intended to protect ethnic Russians or to pre-empt action by NATO, according to researchers.

American intelligence officials said Russia had produced a steady stream of disinformation about Ukraine since 2014. But they observed an uptick in December and January as Moscow increased pressure on the government in Kyiv.

In speeches, interviews and lengthy articles, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his close associates have telegraphed a singular fixation on Ukraine. The Kremlin thesis goes that Ukrainians are “one people” with Russians, living in a failing state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.

Ukrainians, who ousted a Russia-friendly president in 2014 and are increasingly in favor of binding their country to Western institutions, would largely beg to differ. But Mr. Putin’s conviction finds a receptive ear among many Russians, who see themselves as linked intimately with Ukraine by generations of linguistic, cultural, economic, political and family ties.

Russians often view Kyiv, now the Ukrainian capital and once the center of the medieval Kyivan Rus, as the birthplace of their nation. Well-known Russian-language writers, such as Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov, came from Ukraine, as did the Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Ukrainian is Ukraine’s official language, but Russian — which is closely related — is still widely spoken. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, now speaks Ukrainian in public but first gained fame as a Russian-language comedian who performed across the former Soviet Union.

To Mr. Putin — and many other Russians — the conflict with Ukraine is about a hurt national psyche, a historical injustice to be set right. One of his former advisers, Gleb O. Pavlovsky, in an interview described the Kremlin’s view of Ukraine as a “trauma wrapped in a trauma” — the dissolution of the Soviet Union coupled with the separation of a nation Russians long viewed as simply an extension of their own.

Mr. Putin has years of grievances about what he sees as Western overreach in Eastern Europe, and Ukraine has been the object of decades of Kremlin efforts to keep it within Moscow’s sway.

Mr. Putin also argues that a greater Western military presence represents an existential threat to Russia. Nuclear missiles placed there, he has said, would be able to reach Moscow with just a few minutes’ warning. American officials say the United States has no plans to base such missiles in Ukraine.

It is not the most important question regarding the international maelstrom currently brewing in Ukraine.

But it is a very common question, and one that carries what some may find an unexpectedly political answer: How do you pronounce the capital’s name, Kyiv?

Ukrainians have a preference — and it might not be the one most commonly heard or assumed. It sounds more similar to “keev” than the two-syllable “key-EV” favored by many Russian speakers, but that’s not exactly it, either.

Andrii Smytsniuk, a Ukrainian who teaches Ukrainian and Russian languages at the University of Cambridge, broke the word down letter by letter for English speakers in an interview on Tuesday. It’s a bit hard to describe.

The K sound is the same as in English.

The Y is similar to the I sounds in “little bit.”

The I is similar to the first part of “yeast.”

The V is a slightly shorter version of a W, as in “low,” or almost like the V in “love.”

Marta Jenkala, who teaches the Ukrainian language at University College London, endorsed the pronunciation seen in a video by Oleksandra Wallo, an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas.

“It helps if you smile a little bit to say it, especially on the first syllable,” she said in the video.

There was a newsroom-wide reply-all apocalypse at NPR today, over the correct pronunciation of Kyiv. All I can say is that is was absurd and perfect and everything you’d ever expect such an email thread to be. I couldn’t be more proud to work with such sticklers for accuracy.

— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) January 25, 2022

In 2019, Yuri Shevchuk, a lecturer in Ukrainian at Columbia University, told The New York Times that native Ukrainians stress the first vowel, and pronounce it like the “i” in the word “kid” or “lid.” The second vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable, and sounds like the “ee” sound in “keel.” The V is also pronounced a bit differently, like the end of the word “low.”

One common pronunciation, “key-ev,” is the Russian form of saying it, and it is one Americans may tend to hear more often. Mr. Smytsniuk said he would argue for people pronouncing it the Ukrainian way “that is as close to the original as possible.”

“It is the same thing with names,” he said. “I think it makes sense to pronounce someone’s name the way the person would pronounce it.”

A discussion of the city name and pronunciation is the first thing he goes over in his Ukrainian language courses, he said, along with “Ukraine” versus “the Ukraine.” (When Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, the preferred name became “Ukraine.”)

Most people are unaware of how to pronounce Kyiv, so he tries not to aggressively correct people, Mr. Smytsniuk said. But many people do take the issue seriously, he said.

“When I see American media, it’s always different, it’s always new, always a surprise,” he said.