Nato must prepare for the possibility that its looming high-stakes talks with Russia will fail, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said.
Mr Stoltenberg said next week’s talks on the crisis in Ukraine are a chance for Moscow to “demonstrate that it is serious” about ensuring European security, despite its continued troop build-up posing a “very real” risk of conflict.
But he signalled that Nato would not cede to Russia’s demands to stop third parties such as Sweden, Finland and Ukraine from choosing to join the alliance in future.
“There’s no way that Nato can compromise on the principle of the right of every nation to choose its own path,” he said after talks between the alliance’s foreign ministers on Friday.
Ministers put on a show of unity at a virtual conference that prepared the ground for next week’s series of diplomatic showdowns with Russia.
The US and Russia will hold talks in Geneva on Monday before the Nato-Russia Council assembles for discussions on European security on Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after the virtual Nato conference that his country is "prepared to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression".
"Certainly part of the [Russian] playbook is to put out a list of absolutely non-starter demands, and then to claim that the other side is not engaging and then to use that as somehow justification for aggressive action," said Mr Blinken.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said reports the Biden administration is developing options for pulling back US forces in Eastern Europe ahead of next week's dialogue "not accurate", and said Nato would reinforce its Eastern Flank if Moscow were to invade Ukraine.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss meanwhile said that at the Nato-Russia meeting, Moscow would be called on to de-escalate and show transparency in regard to its military activities.
The unexplained build-up of tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine has prompted fears of a Russian invasion, although Moscow denies such intentions. It annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 in a move not recognised by most of the international community.
Ms Truss said there was “no justification” for Russia’s “aggressive and unprovoked stance towards Ukraine”.
“We stand with our Nato allies in urging Russia to end its malign activity,” she said. “Our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.”
Diplomats from the US, Spain, Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia stressed the alliance’s unity in the face of Russian manoeuvres.
It came after the EU expressed concerns over old rivals in Moscow and Washington dominating the talks on Europe’s future. But the White House has promised to consult its allies.
“Whatever the solution, Europe has to be involved,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
Germany said dialogue with Russia must be grounded in basic principles of European security, echoing Mr Stoltenberg’s message.
The secretary general said the alliance was consulting with non-members Georgia, Moldova, Sweden and Finland, which would be affected by Russia’s call to stop further Nato expansion into what was once Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who has said she does not plan to apply for Nato membership, held talks with Mr Stoltenberg on Friday.
Mr Stoltenberg said Nato would engage in good faith in the talks with Moscow, that it is “always ready to listen to Russia’s concerns” and would “make every effort to find a political way forward”.
But “we must also be prepared for the possibility that diplomacy will fail”, he said.
“We regret that despite the calls of the international community over many weeks, Russia has not taken steps to de-escalate.
“So, today, ministers stressed that any further aggression against Ukraine would have significant consequences and carry a heavy price for Russia.”