US charge d’affaires: We are not negotiating over Estonia’s head

Brian Roraff, temporary U.S. charge d’affaires in Estonia. PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Brian Roraff, temporary U.S. charge d’affaires in Estonia, says in an interview that there will be three dialogues concerning the Ukraine crisis this week that cannot be described as negotiations.

NBC recently ran a story suggesting that the Biden administration is considering proposing to Russia reduced NATO troop presence in Eastern Europe. What is true and what isn’t?

The Friday story on NBC got a lot of attention. Our security council said on the same day that claims according to which NATO troops in Eastern Europe are somehow in question are simply false.

What is in question?

The crisis in Ukraine. The U.S. saw Russia building up its military presence. They have 140,000 troops stationed at the border with Ukraine. We said that we perceive it as a threat and that we need to talk.

This saw Russia produce two documents and a host of topics: NATO, Eastern Europe and alleged promises from the 1990s that were never made.

There will be three dialogues this week. We are not referring to them as negotiations. The strategic stability dialogue between USA and Russia in Geneva today (Monday – M. S.). There will be a Russia-NATO dialogue on Wednesday and an OSCE discussion involving all states, including Ukraine, on Thursday. A big week for sure. But these are not negotiations, rather, they are conversations to get a feel for how the land lies.

What is the difference between negotiations and just talking?

Negotiations can concern things where we feel a result can be achieved. The U.S. and our allies need to understand whether Russia can be taken seriously, whether they even want to negotiate.

The documents Russia has produced include so many things that we simply cannot accept. We are not basing negotiations on these things.

We want diplomacy, to see whether Russia has legitimate concerns, things where progress can be made, or whether this is just putting on a show to be able to say down the line that we tried, but they weren’t interested.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said that we offer Russia two paths. One is diplomacy, including solving the troop buildup on the Ukrainian border. The second is deterrence and consequences. We have been working with our European allies on significant sanctions should Russia decide to attack Ukraine. Opting out of diplomacy will come with consequences.

A second news story, this time from Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Saturday, suggests the U.S. is willing to negotiate over missile systems and military exercises. While the story has a different angle from NBC, it too suggests USA is willing to give Russia something.

We will not be giving them anything. We were clear when Russia tabled its proposals. Some things are not up for discussion. Firstly, Russia will not be given a veto power over other countries or a promise by NATO not to expand – it is off the table. Every state gets to decide its own foreign policy. Secondly, they want NATO to revert back to the 1990s. This will also not happen. Thirdly, NATO troop presence in Eastern Europe is also not up for discussion.

Do you think NBC and AFP are lying or are they simply ill-informed?

The NBC story was false. They were wrong about there being any negotiation over NATO troop presence in Europe.

There are a few things that overlap. The Russians have voiced concern over the possibility of missiles in Ukraine. We are willing to discuss the matter because we have said that we have no plans for stationing missile systems in Ukraine. Then there are weapons covered by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that Russia itself violated. We are also willing to talk about these particular missile systems.

Missile systems in Ukraine are one thing but what about missile systems in Estonia or Poland – while there aren’t any presently, would you be willing to negotiate over such things with Russia?

We will not be discussing potential missiles in Estonia or Poland. The fact remains that Russia has developed intermediate-range missiles and is not willing to negotiate their use, while we are. Once they are ready to enter the dialogue, we will see whether there is anything to discuss.

It pays to remember that reciprocity is a key principle of such discussions. It means that we want to talk about Russia’s conduct that is a concern for us. We are also controlling the agenda. We will not just be discussing the things Russia wants to talk about. We have serious concerns about Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, their activities in Syria and violation of the INF. Russia brought a long list of things, while we have our own.

The CNN reported that the Friday story suggesting U.S. preparedness to negotiate with Russia over NATO presence in Eastern Europe shocked Baltic diplomats and sent them scrambling to contact American colleagues… Were you approached?

I would refrain from commenting on private diplomatic communication. But we went over things with Estonian politicians when the story was published on Friday. The Estonian government is a great partner. We want to assure Estonia and our other Eastern European partners that we will not be negotiating over your heads or without you. We will not be negotiating over NATO troop presence in Eastern Europe.

Just to confirm – there will be no negotiation over NATO presence in Eastern Europe, troop placement and size, missile systems?

No. We covered missiles. We are interested in talking to determine whether there is anything to be negotiated. Troops and placement will not be on the table. Military training exercises… We will listen to what they have to say. But we have our own concern over Russian drills. This seems like one avenue for dialogue – we do not want to call it negotiations. We want to voice our concerns over Russia’s exercises and listen if they have any concerns of their own. But it falls into the same category as the missiles. A two-way street, reciprocity.

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