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EU offers more talks, pushes de-escalation in letter to Russia

The EU is ready to continue formal talks over Russia’s massive troop build-up along the Ukrainian border, the bloc said in a letter for Moscow, calling once again on the Kremlin to pull back its military.

The letter, a draft of which was seen by POLITICO, represents the EU’s collective response to a recent memo Russia sent to EU countries. It was signed by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell. 

“We remain gravely concerned about the current situation and firmly believe that tensions and disagreements must be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy,” the EU leader writes. “We call on Russia to de-escalate and to reverse its military build-up in and around Ukraine, and in Belarus.”

The letter adds: “Together with our partners in NATO, we in the European Union are prepared to continue dialogue with Russia on ways to strengthen the security of all.” 

The response is the latest move in a series of sprawling diplomatic talks and exchanges that have kicked into high gear after Russia piled more than 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry along the Ukrainian border, prompting fears of an imminent invasion. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to pull back unless NATO and Western allies significantly scale back their military presence in Eastern Europe, making numerous demands that are considered nonstarters in the West. Specifically, Western leaders have flatly refused to offer Russia its desired guarantee that Ukraine will not join the NATO military alliance.

Still, diplomats on both sides have been making attempts in recent weeks to find areas of negotiation through a flurry of meetings and letter swaps.

The EU’s most recent letter suggests continuing talks through several formats, including at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a security-focused intergovernmental group, as well as through the NATO-Russia Council. Discussions have recently occurred in both formats, but have failed thus far to resolve the situation.

The memo specifically emphasizes OCSE talks, given that all EU countries are members of the organization, as opposed to NATO, which only includes 21 EU countries.

“We believe that the OSCE is the appropriate forum to address security concerns of all interested parties, in complementarity with other existing formats including the NATO-Russia Council,” the letter reads.

Moscow’s recent letter, sent by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, pressed EU countries to clarify their views of several international agreements, arguing that Western allies were picking and choosing which parts to emphasize in their diplomatic exchanges.

The EU’s response did not elaborate on the specific agreements Lavrov mentioned, but it did say future talks would “provide opportunities to address the topic,” as well as “other key documents which form the foundation of European security.”

Borrell previewed the letter while in Washington earlier this week to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“Lavrov has sent a letter to the member states of the European Union,” he said in a press conference with Blinken. “I am coordinating the answer to this letter, and I am insisting on the fact that there is still room for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.”

Russia doesn’t recognize a role for the EU in the ongoing talks over Ukraine, Borrell said Tuesday while speaking in Washington, which is why Lavrov sent the letters to EU countries — and not the EU as an institution.

“For Russia,” Borrell said, the EU “doesn’t exist or is not relevant.”

Yet, Borrell added, Lavrov’s letter to EU members was essentially “opening a new line of dialogue.” Now the EU should work to form a common response and “show the European unity and maybe the fact that we are not 27 different countries but a Union, something the Russians don’t like to accept.”

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