Russia should make the "smart choice" to prevent a military incursion into Ukraine and embrace "diplomacy as opposed to deterrence", Wendy Sherman, the United States Deputy Secretary of State, has warned.
"I hope that the Russian delegations go back to Russia, speak to President [Vladimir] Putin and he makes the smart choice to choose de-escalation and diplomacy as opposed to deterrence and [the] very significant costs to Russia if they choose invasion, subversion or coercion," Sherman told Euronews.
"President Putin will have to make a judgement about where he can get the kind of progress he wants. I'm not quite sure why Russia feels so threatened by Ukraine. Russia is a vast country with lots of resources, a permanent member of the Security Council," she added.
"Why are they threatened by a much smaller country that's just a developing democracy? It makes no sense. And so I would hope that Russia will stop and think about this and engage in diplomacy to try to reach real mutual security in Europe."
Sherman spoke to Euronews right after the first NATO-Russia Council in more than two years. The high-level meeting, hosted in Brussels, gathered all 30 NATO member states and Russia around the same table and lasted longer than initially planned. It came on the heels of nearly eight hours of US-Russia bilateral talks in Geneva that yielded no progress.
"All [NATO allies] spoke as one today in this nearly four-hour meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. The Russians got plenty of air time to put their concerns on the table and get in a dialogue," Sherman explained, adding she wasn't expecting to achieve a breakthrough this week.
"But this group of 30 countries all said that some of the demands that Russia was making were simply non-starters."
'No one has a veto over NATO'
The West is nervously watching Russia build up a formidable military deployment alongside the Ukraine border, with an estimated 100,000 troops, including tanks, ready for an invasion.
Moscow has denied plans for an all-out attack, although it has also said that if NATO allies fail to meet the Russian demands, Europe's security would be at risk.
President Vladimir Putin has put forward an eight-point draft treaty laying out the requests he wants to see fulfilled as a condition to withdraw the thousands of troops. Among the proposals, Putin wants long-term, legally binding guarantees that NATO will halt its eastward expansion, rule out membership for Ukraine and roll back its military forces stationed in Central and Eastern Europe.
"No one has a veto over who gets into NATO. That's a NATO decision," Sherman said.
"Everyone should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country. Russia should de-escalate and we should go to work on issues and areas where we can work together to increase mutual security."
The prolonged impasse has increased fears of an imminent Russian intervention, a scenario that could have unpredictable and far-reaching consequences for the whole region. Can diplomacy afford to fail?
"Anything is possible in the world," Sherman said. "But I will say this: it won't be about diplomacy failing. It will be about President Putin having made a choice that actually, I think, will bring great, great sorrow to his country, men and women, because there will be great economic costs to Russia if they take this action."
President Putin knows "we will be unified in imposing costs, if he makes the wrong choice," she added.
"I hope he makes the right one."
Article 5 will not apply to Ukraine
Sherman's forceful words were echoed by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's Secretary General, who pointed out "there is still a danger for an armed conflict in Europe."
"NATO allies will engage in good faith in dialogue with Russia to help to prevent a new armed conflict," Stoltenberg told Euronews in a separate interview.
"[But] if Russia once again uses force against Ukraine, it'll have severe consequences for Russia, economic political sanctions. But, of course, our support to Ukraine will increase the costs for any Russian incursion into Ukraine."
The secretary general put the blame of the current crisis squarely on Moscow and denounced its military deployment as well as its "threatening rhetoric" and track record, in reference to the 2014 illegal annexation of the Crimea peninsula.
"We are ready to agree on balanced and verifiable reductions in forces as part of conventional or nuclear arms control agreements. But we're not ready for one-sided reductions, and especially not in the light of a significant Russian military build-up," Stoltenberg said.
The official underlined that, in the event of an invasion, NATO would provide Ukraine with technical support but would not trigger the treaty's Article 5 of collective defence, which is considered the alliance's cornerstone principle.
"The security guarantees apply to NATO members and they are very clear: an attack on one ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance. One for all and all for one. This has preserved peace throughout Europe for decades. And as long as the two allies stand together, we will continue to preserve peace," he said.
Following the inconclusive NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday, Stoltenberg opened the door for follow-up meetings to address a variety of topics that can help reduce tensions on the border.
"Russia was not ready to respond to those proposals in the meeting, so they will come back," he explained.
"The allies are ready to sit down and put concrete proposals on the table. So it will be the substance that we can discuss if Russia is ready to engage in dialogue."
Stoltenberg noted it was "a bit too early" to impose preconditions on the negotiations and that the European Union, which has been mostly absent from the discussions, will be involved and consulted.
"Nothing about European security without Europeans," he insisted. "That's that's why NATO is such an indispensable platform because NATO brings together North America and Europe and European security is totally dependent on this transatlantic bond."