The Biden administration is heading into talks next week with Russia still unsure if Moscow is serious about negotiations, but if so, US officials are ready to suggest discussions about reducing US and Russian troop deployments and military exercises in Eastern Europe, according to a current administration official. Two former US national security officials familiar with the planning told NBC News.
Discussions could touch on the scope of military exercises conducted by both powers, the number of US forces stationed in the Baltic states and Poland, advance notice of troop movement, and Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the Russian territory of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania, the sources said.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration is threatening unprecedented sanctions and other tough steps if Russia takes military action against Ukraine. But the administration is also exploring ways to defuse tensions with Russia as US officials prepare for a series of high-stakes discussions with Moscow starting Monday.
An administration official said the administration is “compiling a list of options for power-positioning changes in Europe to discuss with Russia in the talks.” If Russia appears ready to discuss reducing its presence in the region, the United States will be willing to discuss specific moves, the official said.
For any change in the US military presence in Europe, the current and former officials said, Russia would have to take reciprocal and equal steps to reduce its forces, and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine would not be enough.
After this story was published, White House National Security spokeswoman Emily Horne argued that the United States would consider reducing the number of troops permanently stationed in Poland and the Baltic states.
“The administration does not weigh troop reductions in Europe as the title suggests,” Horn said in a statement. “The administration does not discuss with Russia the number of troops stationed in the Baltic states and Poland. Contrary to what the unnamed official has reported in this story, the administration does not compile a list of changes.” Putting force to discuss in future talks. These three assertions are wrong.”
A State Department official also said, after its publication, “There are three main assertions in the report that has been circulated, and these three assertions are false.”
After Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, the United States and other NATO countries deployed a modest number of forces to Eastern Europe, including American armored units, and expanded air and sea patrols along with high-level military exercises from the Baltic states to Black Sea. .
Of the more than 70,000 US troops stationed in Europe, approximately 6,000 are deployed to Eastern Europe on a mostly rotating basis, including about 4,000 in Poland. Other NATO countries also have thousands of troops in rotating operations in the region to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank.
NATO’s enhanced “forward presence” and maneuvers have angered Russia, which says the alliance’s activities pose a threat to Russia.
The mere thought of any changes to US military exercises or the US military presence in Eastern Europe could alarm NATO allies in the region, especially Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries were under the control of Russia and the former Soviet Union and feared renewed aggression without the protection of the United States and NATO.
William Taylor, who served as the US ambassador to Ukraine during the Bush administration and served as acting ambassador during the Trump era, said any negotiations on troop deployments in Central and Eastern Europe should include all affected countries, including NATO members on the eastern side of the alliance. Administration.
“They should be on the table,” said Taylor, who is now at the US Institute of Peace.
But he said it was worth pursuing potential talks that could ease tensions along the border between Russia and NATO allies.
“Our overall goal is to increase security and I would argue that there are ways to do that by limiting in a smart way . . . what the Russians can do and mutual constraints on what NATO can do,” Taylor said. We are talking about steps that will build confidence that neither side is preparing for the other’s invasion. “
Taylor said potential measures could include sharing information about military exercises in sensitive areas and deploying observers to monitor the exercises.
If successful, these talks could revive the spirit of the now moribund 1990 treaty between the West and the Soviet bloc on conventional forces, which required Washington and Moscow to share information about the movement of troops and weapons. Experts say the treaty helped prevent conflict during the end of the Cold War.
It is uncertain whether Russia is ready to engage in real arms control negotiations, former officials said, and any tangible progress will be impossible until Russia withdraws the massive force it has deployed on Ukraine’s borders.
Even as it plots diplomacy with Russia, the Biden administration continues to prepare for a possible military attack in Ukraine, warning that any attack would lead to harsh sanctions on Moscow and more Western military support for Ukraine.
Current and former officials said the United States is working with other NATO members to arrange the delivery of Stinger man-portable anti-aircraft missiles ordered by the government in Kiev. Ukrainian officials believe that the Stinger surface-to-air missiles will help its military defend the country against low-flying Russian helicopters and drones.
Current and former officials said the Biden administration has also prepared a new package of US military aid to Ukraine, in addition to the US military aid already flowing into Kiev. A source familiar with the Ukrainian government’s thinking said Kiev hoped the administration would be ready to agree to the additional aid.
Aside from threatening sanctions, the administration is ready to warn Moscow that if Russian forces seize more territory in Ukraine, the United States will provide support to Ukrainian resistance fighters and support an expanded NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, former officials said.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken suggested a way could be found to agree on immediate steps with Russia that would reduce tensions, but he did not elaborate.
Blinken said after meeting with Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Barbock.
“There are also issues that could be on the table that may take some time to work on, especially, for example, when it comes to arms control, you can’t reach an arms control agreement in a matter of weeks,” he added.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and other US officials are due to meet their Russian counterparts in Geneva on Monday, after which broader talks involving NATO and other European governments are scheduled for the week. The administration pledged that it would not discuss any issues with Russia that affect other Eastern European countries without including those governments in the talks, citing the principle of “nothing about you without you.”
As it prepares for talks with Russia, former US officials said, the White House faces a delicate balancing act as it tries to lower the temperature without bowing to Russian threats or rattling swords.
Former officials said it was not yet clear whether Russia was open to dialogue and compromise or whether it would stick to public positions that Washington considers unrealistic and unreasonable, including a demand to ensure that Ukraine is not allowed to join NATO.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council said, “We don’t know what next week’s talks will bring” but said the US approach “will be pragmatic and results-oriented.”
We believe there are areas where we can make progress if Moscow is realistic in its approach. We cannot be sure until talks take place – that is the nature of diplomacy,” the spokesperson said.
As for Russia’s assertions that Ukraine is a threat to Russia because of its defensive relations with European countries or that NATO is a threat to Moscow, US officials argue that it is Russia that has recently violated international law and increased the risk of conflict. years. They point to Russia’s invasions of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, its attempts to interfere in other countries’ elections, and accusations that Moscow used chemical weapons to attempt an assassination on foreign soil.
“We and our allies will raise these and other issues with Russia in the coming days and weeks,” a National Security Council spokesman said.
The White House has reached out to a number of former top national security officials and Russian experts over the past month to discuss its approach to Russia and seek their advice. Some of these officials, including senior officers and former military ambassadors, have urged the administration to stick to a hard line, maintain a united front with European allies, counter Russian propaganda, and avoid suggesting Moscow that it can secure concessions to bolster its forces around it. Ukraine.
A letter from 24 former national security officials and senior military officers last week praised Biden’s approach so far, but called for additional steps to be taken to prevent Russia from launching another invasion, rather than wait until after an attack.
The group called for more weapons to be provided to Ukraine now, proposing Stinger missiles, additional shipments of Javelin anti-tank missiles and a radar to track artillery fire.
“We believe that the United States, in close consultation with its NATO allies and with Ukraine, should take immediate steps to influence the Kremlin’s cost-benefit calculations before the Russian leadership opts for further military escalation,” the letter read.
Administration officials are preparing for an unprecedented set of sanctions against Moscow if it takes military action in Ukraine, and has sought to secure support for similar measures from European allies.
Although the US and European governments appear close to consensus on Russia, it is unclear whether some European leaders would be willing to impose sanctions on Moscow if Russia takes provocative measures that do not rise to the level of a full-fledged military attack, such as a cyber attack or, officials said. Ex-conquering a small area of land.
In addition to blocking Russia’s access to bond markets in New York and punishing oligarchs linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, US actions could include targeting semiconductor exports linked to the Russian defense industry, according to three former US officials briefed on the case.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly said that the United States will not accede to Russia’s demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and will insist on Kiev’s right to determine its own future.
Just days before talks between the United States and Russia begin in Geneva, Russia has deployed its forces to another former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan, a close ally of Moscow. Amid widespread anti-government protests, Russia said it has sent paratroopers as part of a regional peacekeeping mission.
It is too early to say how the turmoil in Kazakhstan might affect the crisis in Ukraine. But if the situation deteriorates, it will likely ease pressure on Ukraine, at least temporarily, as Russia may choose to focus its attention and military forces on Kazakhstan, according to regional experts.