(Bloomberg) -- East European countries have reacted critically to a U.S. proposal that a handful of North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies could meet with Russia to discuss its military build-up along Ukraine’s borders.
One government in the region is furious and seeking immediate clarification on what exactly President Joe Biden is planning, according to a diplomat from the country who declined to be named speaking on a confidential issue.
Another diplomat was more specific. The unease among the eastern flank, where countries that were once dominated by the Soviet Union now find themselves on the front lines against an aggressive Russia, centers on just what kind of concessions the talks might lead to in terms of political guarantees and curbs on NATO’s freedom of movement and its ability to carry out actions.
“Russia should under no circumstances be given a say in who may or may not be a member of NATO,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said at a news conference on Thursday. Moscow’s “most worrying wish is to divide Europe into spheres of influence. We remember these kinds of moments from our own history and we are in no way naive on this issue.”
Biden has said that he hopes by Friday to announce the meeting, which will include “at least four of our major NATO allies.” That irritates the Baltic states because it immediately raises the question of who will be excluded, mainly the eastern states with the most at stake, in favor of the Western European allies.
Ukraine aspires to be a member of the military alliance that was formed in the aftermath of World War II as a bulwark against Communism, though NATO has given no timeline for accession. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees any expansion of NATO as a threat and demanded binding guarantees that it won’t cross his “red lines.” The alliance itself has suffered from a loss of prestige.
White House officials have repeatedly said -- before and after Biden’s call with Putin on Tuesday -- that Russia will have no say on NATO’s expansion. “The president told Putin in their call: One nation can’t force another nation to change its border, one nation cannot tell another to change its politics, and nations can’t tell others who they can work -- who they can work with,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.
Biden in a Bind
Biden will no doubt tread carefully in promising Putin anything. The subject of the meeting, he has said, is “whether or not we can work out any accommodation as it relates to bringing down the temperature along the eastern front.”
The consternation among eastern European allies emerged on the same day Biden opened a virtual “summit for democracy,” intended to highlight and strengthen ties between the world’s democratically elected governments. The president is trying to show a degree of toughness in the face of Russian aggression yet some in NATO see his latest overture to Russia as a diplomatic concession.
In the aftermath of the chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August, when the U.S. clearly signalled it has little appetite for foreign wars, the challenge for an administration still in its first year is to indicate it will act if red lines, which Putin likes to test, are crossed.
Biden will call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy later on Thursday and will then call leaders of the so-called Bucharest 9 group of eastern flank allies to give them a download on his Dec. 7 call with Putin.
Eastern European nations have long been distrustful of Russia, a sentiment exacerbated by most decisions about their region being taken over their heads. They insist it is not up to Russia or any other non-member to influence who is picked to join NATO, one of the diplomats said. All the eastern flank countries are worried about the offer, with the Baltic states, Poland and Romania the most concerned, the official added.
The talks could give Putin a chance to divide and rule, driving a wedge between the U.S. and Europe, or even between European members, officials said, with one describing him as a great opportunist. Another said governments need to wait for more details on the proposed talks.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, asked about Biden’s call with Putin, told reporters during a visit to Rome that Moscow was exploiting a difficult time for NATO. “I believe that after the pullout from Afghanistan, the situation in NATO is tense, it’s difficult and also, unfortunately, our adversaries, foes and Russia is one of them are taking advantage of the situation,” he said.
Biden’s proposal was a disappointing surprise, according to Marko Mihkelson, chair of the Estonian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. He called for a diplomatic push to block such a meeting from taking place and at the very least, to expand the meeting to include members of NATO’s eastern flank. Any talks should only relate to ensuring the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the removal of Russian military threats, he said.
Initiating talks at gunpoint over NATO’s future, or over involving Russia as a participant with a right of veto on Europe’s security architecture is completely wrong and a road to inciting new aggression, he added.
Talking to Russia is part of NATO’s dual-track policy toward the country, based on deterrence and dialog, said a NATO official. Any decision on future membership is a decision for only the alliance’s 30 members to make, the official said, adding that consultations are under way among them.
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