Nato has invited Russia to a fresh series of talks to discuss European security and arms controls as the alliance scrambles to avoid a possible Russian attack on Ukraine.
“The main task now is to prevent a military attack on Ukraine,” the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said after a meeting with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
“We are willing to listen to their concerns but we will not compromise on core principles. We must remain clear-eyed about the prospects of progress but … will make every effort to reach an agreement.”
Stoltenberg’s offer of further wide-ranging talks with Moscow follows inconclusive meetings last week between the US and Russia, as well as a rare meeting of the Nato-Russia Council, where Russia tabled uncompromising demands about the future security architecture of Europe, including legally binding guarantees that neither Ukraine nor Moldova will be allowed into Nato. Moscow wants a pullback of Nato troops from close to the Russian border, and an end to some intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe.
The fresh invitation to talks may be a last-ditch attempt to show to Vladimir Putin that dialogue will give him substantive progress on arms controls that he can sell to a domestic audience and that by comparison a military intervention represents an incalculable political risk for him.
But Stoltenberg’s offer still seems to leave Nato and Russia far apart on the agenda for the talks.
Standing alongside Stoltenberg, Scholz said: “We all want stable and constructive relations with Russia. We have no interest in permanent tensions.” He added there were difficult issues about how to sequence the issues in any talks with Russia.
He also came under pressure to say whether he regarded the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany as a purely commercial contract. He implied the project would stop if there was an invasion by saying he stood by an agreement Germany signed with the US last year.
The Stoltenberg offer came as the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, met her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow. Baerbock said it was hard to see the buildup of Russian troops as anything but a threat to Ukraine and that her country was prepared to pay a high price to defend its values.
Baerbock also called for an urgent return to dialogue on the future of Ukraine through the Normandy Format, the four-way dialogue between Germany, Russia, France and Ukraine.
The vastly experienced Lavrov said he would welcome US involvement in the Normandy Format, claiming it was impossible at present to persuade Ukraine to examine the necessary issues, including the legal status of the Donbass, the separatist region within Ukraine.
With the Russian military buildup continuing, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is due to fly to Ukraine on Wednesday, where he is expected to focus on the offers Ukraine can make to restore dialogue.
Lavrov defended the right of Russia to move its troops within its borders and demanded the promised written answers from both Nato and the US to Russia’s call for a rewriting of European security architecture including legally binding guarantees that neither Ukraine or Moldova will be admitted to Nato.
Baerbock said: “There will be no security in our joint European home if there are no rules everyone can rely on.
“And we have no choice but to follow them, even if there is a high economic price,” she added, in a reference to possible sanctions discussed by western nations.
Her visit was being watched for signs of how the new German government will treat Moscow after the era of mediation between the west and Russia associated with the former German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Baerbock defended Ukraine’s right to self determination, but disappointed Kyiv by saying Germany would not provide arms to Ukraine on the grounds that Germany did not provide arms for historical reasons in conflict zones. She instead offered to provide Ukraine help with developing its hydrogen technology.
There were unconfirmed reports in the German press that Germany was lobbying the EU and the US to soften any economic sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion of Ukraine and that the west had agreed not to try to detach Russia from the SWIFT global payments system – an extreme measure that might have unpredictable impact on the world banking system. The US has threatened “severe economic consequences” in the event of Russian military action.
A British military plane carried anti-tank weapons to Ukraine on Monday night on a flight path that avoided German airspace, but both countries denied there had been any dispute over flyover permits.
Scholz sidestepped a question on whether he supported the British decision to supply Ukraine with anti-tank weapons, saying German policy for many years is not to export lethal weapons.