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Russia, NATO Fail to Resolve Differences in Ukraine Talks

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BRUSSELS—NATO’s chief said “significant differences” remained with Russia but expressed hope that Moscow would agree to further talks, after the first joint council meeting between the two since 2019.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after discussions Wednesday that differences would be hard to bridge, with Russia increasing pressure on the West to accept its demands for sweeping security guarantees, and the alliance largely refusing to budge.

The meeting between a Russian delegation and representatives of the 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization came two days after a U.S.-Russia meeting in Geneva failed to reach a breakthrough.

Russia has gathered tens of thousands of troops around Ukraine and says it wants big changes in European security arrangements, and fast. Moscow is demanding that NATO give a binding guarantee that it won’t offer membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics that Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence. NATO has said—since 2008—that Ukraine and Georgia will eventually become members, but it is in no rush to offer them an immediate path into the alliance.

Another of Russia’s proposals is that the alliance scale back its activities to the level before former Warsaw Pact members, such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, began joining.

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An Ukrainian military serviceman on the front line in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

Photo: anatolii stepanov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

NATO allies have said these demands are unacceptable. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said after the talks that such proposals were “simply nonstarters,” and that allies had been united in rejecting them.

“We will not slam the door shut on NATO’s open-door policy,” Ms. Sherman told reporters after the nearly four-hour meeting.

NATO offered Russia further talks to discuss more limited measures allies hope will ease its security concerns. Mr. Stoltenberg said those measures included ways to increase the transparency of military exercises, to prevent dangerous incidents, to reduce space and cyber threats, and to address arms control.

The Russian delegation didn’t immediately respond positively or negatively, but said it would take the proposal back to Moscow, officials said.

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NATO allies called on Russia to withdraw its troops from around Ukraine.

“There is a real risk for a new conflict in Europe,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. The Kremlin has said that it is at liberty to deploy its forces as it wants in its own territory.

Moscow has long sought to prevent Ukraine from integrating with NATO and the European Union. After street protests overthrew a pro-Russian president in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to seize Crimea in 2014 and took control of territory in his neighbor’s east with a covert military intervention.

NATO allies have provided military weapons, equipment and training to Ukraine, causing Russia to complain that the alliance was seeking to turn the country into an anti-Russian proxy state.

A Kremlin spokesman said before the talks that Mr. Putin wasn’t presenting ultimatums, but was worried about threats to Russia’s security.

A military buildup along the Ukrainian border is further straining ties between Russia and the U.S., after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon

“Without doubt, any expansion of NATO concerns Russia,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday. “NATO is an instrument of confrontation” that presents a threat, he added.

Russia staged live-fire exercises Tuesday involving tanks and troops near Ukraine’s borders. Mr. Peskov said they weren’t connected to the talks.

Diplomats fear that Russia could use the talks’ slowness as a pretext to launch a fresh invasion of Ukraine if NATO doesn’t meet its demands. Ms. Sherman warned of “significant costs and consequences” to Russia if it invaded Ukraine again, including economic and financial measures.

“We don’t have anything to offer them,” said a European diplomat at NATO. “The only hope is to keep the Russians at the table.”

The U.S. has stressed unity with its allies in Europe, but there are divisions. U.S. officials have said they are ready to speak with Russia about reciprocal restrictions on the size and scope of military exercises in Europe. Allies weren’t warned about the U.S.’s thinking on restricting military exercises before it appeared in the media, diplomats said. NATO members in the east are concerned that President Biden may be willing to offer concessions to Mr. Putin that could whet the Russian president’s appetite for more.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

Officials from NATO and Russia met in Brussels. A photo caption in an earlier version of this article incorrectly said they met in Geneva. (Corrected on Jan. 12)

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