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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg leaves after speaking during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on Jan. 12.Olivier Matthys/The Associated Press

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday of the possibility of a “new armed conflict in Europe” after talks between the alliance and Russia ended without any agreements or concessions that might reduce dangerously high tensions on the continent.

Speaking after a special session of the NATO-Russia Council, Mr. Stoltenberg said that ambassadors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had refused the Kremlin’s key demand of a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine would never be invited to join the 30-country alliance. “It is only Ukraine and 30 allies that can decide when Ukraine can become a NATO member. No one else can, and of course Russia does not have a veto,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Mr. Stoltenberg said that while it was a positive sign that the two sides had met in Brussels to discuss their differences, the gap between their respective positions was wide, and the dangers were real. “There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” he said.

The four-hour meeting, which marked the first time the NATO-Russia Council had met in more than two years, was held as an invasion-sized Russian force remained massed along the country’s western border with Ukraine. Ukrainian and American officials have estimated there are more than 100,000 Russian soldiers within a short drive of Ukrainian territory, backed by large numbers of tanks, artillery and warplanes.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, also sounded a pessimistic note after the talks, comparing the standoff over Ukraine to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the world was brought to the brink of nuclear conflict by the Soviet Union’s deployment of ballistic missiles close to the American mainland. “A further downturn of the situation could lead to the most unpredictable and most difficult consequences for European security,” Mr. Grushko warned.

Ukraine, which shares a 2,000-kilometre-long border with Russia, is not a member of NATO but has sought membership in the alliance since a pro-Western revolution in the country eight years ago, which Russia responded to by invading and annexing the strategic Crimean Peninsula. NATO has said the door is open for Ukraine to join, but no timeline has been given.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described NATO’s presence in Ukraine – where Canada, the U.S. and Britain all have small deployments training the Ukrainian military – as crossing a “red line.” Russia has protested repeatedly as NATO has expanded five times since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago, with the alliance taking in countries such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic states that once deferred to the Kremlin.

NATO must call Russia’s bluff in Ukraine

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On Wednesday, Mr. Grushko said that if NATO wanted to de-escalate the crisis, it should end training missions such as Canada’s 200-soldier Operation Unifier and stop sending weapons to the Ukrainian military.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had a phone call on Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, suggested such a withdrawal was unlikely to happen.

“We are part of Operation Unifier on the ground in Ukraine, training Ukrainian soldiers. We will continue to be there to stand as part of our NATO allies with our friends in the region,” Mr. Trudeau said, speaking in broad terms about Canada’s support for Ukraine. He added that Canada and its allies were “united” in calling for Moscow to de-escalate, adding there would be “significant consequences in the form of sanctions if further aggressive actions are taken by Russia.”

But Russia has continued to send troops and equipment toward its border with Ukraine, even during this week’s intense diplomacy, which began Monday with a meeting between senior U.S. and Russian diplomats in the Swiss city of Geneva. Those talks yielded no tangible results. The Ukraine crisis is due to be discussed again on Thursday in Vienna at a meeting of the 57-country Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a group that both Russia and Ukraine (as well as Canada, the U.S., and all European states) are members of.

Videos posted to social media this week, even as the talks in Geneva and Brussels were taking place, showed long trains carrying military equipment – including tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems usually stationed in Russia’s Far East – moving westward toward Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia announced live-fire drills in four regions along its border.

On Wednesday, the International Energy Agency suggested that Russia was also slowing deliveries of natural gas to Europe – thus driving up costs for consumers across the continent – amid the crisis. “I would note that today’s low Russian gas flows to Europe coincide with heightened geopolitical tensions over Ukraine,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA.

U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, who led the American delegation in Geneva and who also attended Wednesday’s talks, said it wasn’t clear what Russia hoped to achieve with its actions. “What is this about? Is this about invasion? Is this about intimidation? Is this about trying to be subversive? I don’t know, but it is not conducive to getting to diplomatic solutions.”

Mr. Stoltenberg said NATO had proposed a schedule of future meetings to work toward potential new arms-control agreements, but that the Russian side “wasn’t ready to agree” to further talks.

Ms. Sherman said that if Russia decided to walk away from the offer of more negotiations, it would be proof that Mr. Putin and his government had never been interested in a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The Biden administration has vowed to respond to any new Russian aggression against Ukraine with fresh sanctions targeting the Russian economy, as well as escalated support for the Ukrainian military.

Orysia Lutsevych, an expert on Ukraine at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said she believed Russian military action against Ukraine was now “likely.” She said the argument over NATO membership for Ukraine was a distraction, and that Russia’s real goal was undoing the 2014 pro-Western revolution in Kyiv – and bringing Ukraine back under Russian control.

Ms. Lutsevych said the Kremlin had been trying for the past eight years to restore its influence over Kyiv, using a range of tools, including economic pressure and political interference – as well as support for the pro-Russian “separatist” militia that controls the southeastern Donbas region. “All of this is failing. Russia is not achieving its goals. … That’s why I fear that they may decide that what’s left is bombs and tanks.”

Ms. Lutsevych said the focus on NATO’s supposedly aggressive intent was meant to steel Mr. Putin’s domestic audience for the possibility of conflict. “Russians are being presented a picture where they are not fighting Ukraine – they are fighting NATO. Because it’s not popular to fight Ukrainians, in Russia. It’s not an idea that people like. But it’s acceptable to fight NATO to save our Slavic brothers.”

With reports from Bill Curry and Marieke Walsh in Ottawa

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