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Diplomats warned of a possible military escalation between European nations and Russia on Thursday, but offered no solutions in the face of searing tensions.
They were speaking at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, against the backdrop of a major build-up of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine.
“It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever in the last 30 years,” said OSCE chairperson Zbigniew Rau, who is also the foreign minister of Poland.
Addressing representatives of the 57 OSCE member states, including Russia and the United States, he advocated using the organization to reduce regional tensions with the help of dialogue.
“Some of the participating states believe that it is enough to make a speech instead of debating,” he said at a press conference following the meeting.
He did not answer questions about his concrete plans for facilitating dialogue within the OSCE framework.
The meeting followed crisis talks between the US and Russia in Geneva on Monday and a rare meeting between NATO and Russia in Brussels on Wednesday.
From NATO’s perspective, the large number of Russian troops massed on the border poses a security threat to Ukraine. Moscow, in turn, sees itself threatened by NATO expansion and demands pledges that countries such as Ukraine and Georgia will not be granted membership in the future.
The OSCE is the only regional security forum where the US and Russia regularly sit at the same table. OSCE observers are also monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine, which is partly controlled by pro-Russian separatists with Moscow’s support.
Ahead of the talks in Vienna, Washington’s delegate to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter, outlined the issues his side wanted to discuss.
These included the exchange of information between armed forces and confidence-building measures to reduce tensions.
However, no regional spheres of influence should be demarcated in the process and the right of states to freely choose their alliances must not be curtailed, Carpenter stressed.
Russia’s permanent representative to the OSCE, Alexander Lukashevich, said his country wanted an early decision on the security guarantees Moscow has recently demanded from NATO.
Delaying negotiations on Russian demands that NATO’s eastward expansion end could lead to an “inevitable deterioration of the security situation of all states without exception,” Lukashevich told the other OSCE delegates.
“Russia is a peace-loving country. But we don’t need peace at any price,” Lukashevich added.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov views the talks with the West so far as unsuccessful, according to the Interfax agency.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the RTVi broadcaster that without a concession from the US side on the issues central to Russia, he saw no basis for further talks in the coming days.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave his assessment of the progress so far: “As expected.” Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity, US Democrats introduced a bill that would impose extensive sanctions on the Russian banking sector and Russian leaders in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Under the proposal, put forward by US Senator Bob Menendez and 26 of his colleagues, President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Foreign Minister Lavrov and senior members of the Russian military would be banned from entering the US and their assets there would be frozen.
The draft, dubbed the “Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act,” has not yet been debated in the Senate.
Moscow nevertheless reacted indignantly. “The timing of this statement is an attempt to put pressure on Moscow,” Peskov said. If the punitive measures were to be imposed, it could lead to a breakdown in relations, he warned.
Lavrov described the move as “a kind of nervous breakdown.”
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