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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: Gints Ivuskans/AFP via Getty Images

When asked Wednesday whether NATO was expanding toward Russia's "sphere of influence," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gave an impassioned response, pounding his podium and insisting that it's "not acceptable" for the Kremlin to control the actions of its sovereign neighbors.

Why it matters: Russia's attempts to destabilize Ukraine — through a massive military buildup on its border, weaponized disinformation and an alleged coup plot — were a main topic of discussion at NATO's two-day ministerial meeting in Latvia this week.

What they're saying: Asked whether Ukraine's desire to join NATO was an escalation against Moscow, Stoltenberg rejected the premise of the question and said large countries "putting limitations" on smaller, sovereign countries is "the kind of world we don't want to return to."

  • "I myself come from a small country bordering Russia, and I'm very glad that our NATO allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the north, trying to decide what Norway as a small independent country can do or not do. And that's exactly the same for Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.
  • "So this idea that NATO support to a sovereign nation is a provocation is just wrong. It's to respect the sovereignty of the will of the Ukrainian people. So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO."

Between the lines: NATO has not agreed to grant Ukraine membership, despite — or perhaps because of — the imminent threat it faces from Russia. The alliance views Ukraine as a partner and has provided training and other forms of military support, while encouraging the country to undertake anti-corruption reforms.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he is seeking "concrete agreements" with NATO that the alliance will not spread east, including with weapons systems deployed in nonmember countries.
  • "It's only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say, and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbors," Stoltenberg said at his press conference.

The big picture: Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned at his own press conference Wednesday that Putin is "putting in place the capacity" to invade Ukraine, but that his intentions are still unclear.

  • Blinken and Stoltenberg said NATO ministers discussed a range of potential responses to a Russian invasion, including sanctions that would go further than the ones imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
  • "We've made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past," Blinken said.

What to watch: Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm on Thursday.

Go deeper

Biden boxed in on Ukraine

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration is pushing to get Congress, Europe and Ukraine on the same page as it tries to deter Russia from invading Ukraine — all while knowing that the decisive factor will ultimately be the whims of Vladimir Putin.

Why it matters: Officials from virtually all sides are warning that the risk of a large-scale, conventional war on the European continent is greater than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Few agree on how to stop it.

Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. confirms Russia arrested REvil ransomware hackers

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow in June 2021. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

Russia's security agency said Friday it arrested members of the Russia-based cyber gang REvil that was responsible for multiple massive ransomware attacks against U.S. companies last year.

The latest: A senior administration official confirmed on Friday afternoon that Russia informed the U.S. that it arrested the alleged hackers, including an individual responsible for the cyberattack that crippled the Colonial Pipeline.

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.