Russia and the West meet for a crucial week of diplomacy
ONES RUSSIAN TANKS American diplomats streamed east from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast west to the border with Ukraine. Not since the Balkan wars of the 1990s has Europe seen a week of such crucial security summits. On January 10, American diplomats met with Russian in Geneva. Two days later the Nato-Russia Council convened in Brussels. On January 13, the diplomats traveled to Vienna for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a group of 57 countries.
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The purpose of this frenetic diplomacy was to prevent war. This has been demanded by the Russian government, among others Nato Stop the expansion and retreat from places that used to be part of the Soviet Union. It will Nato members to cease cooperation with Ukraine, and a legal guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never join the alliance (which these countries were previously promised). America and its European allies have agreed to address the Kremlin’s stated grievances while stepping up their defenses and threatening sanctions if Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, attacks Ukraine again.
On the surface, the summit conference has taken some of the heat out of the crisis. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said his meeting with US deputy foreign minister Wendy Sherman was “very professional” and “profound”. Ms. Sherman, who suggested ideas on how America and Russia could limit missile use and the scope and transparency of their exercises, noted that Mr. Ryabkov even “discussed things that are not Russian priorities.”
However, Mr. Ryabkov was very keen that this would not be misunderstood. Offers for missiles and exercises were nice, but a sideshow. “It is absolutely necessary for us to ensure that Ukraine will never, never, never become a member Nato‘ he said, clarifying in English: ‘We need ironclad, watertight, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees.’
These were not in place when Russia met the 29 other members Nato in Brussels on January 12 for four hours of talks. “Only Ukraine and 30 allies can decide when Ukraine can become one Nato Member,” said Jens Stoltenberg, the Alliance’s Secretary General, after the meeting. “No one else can.”
This came as no surprise to Moscow, which had expected its demands to be rejected. It was less clear whether the Kremlin’s aim was to elicit a pretext for an attack on Ukraine or simply to generate material for propaganda. Some people familiar with Mr. Putin say that he has long lost interest in the day-to-day running of Russia’s leadership but is enthusiastic about the geopolitical theater; In recent months, Russian officials have drawn grandiose parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mr. Putin is aware that ordinary Russians have little appetite for a major war. Still, he hopes to keep them in a state of anxiety to distract from the many grumblings they have about his regime.
Western officials are eager to keep the talks going for as long as possible in hopes the crisis will resolve. Russian officials have repeatedly warned not to be drawn into what Mr Putin called the “swamp” of protracted discussions, not least because an invasion of Ukraine would become more difficult once the ground in the country’s east thaws in the spring. Mr Stoltenberg said Russia had been open to the idea of further dialogue but declined to agree to a timetable for further meetings. Mr. Putin will make the final call, but his envoys showed little satisfaction. Russian proposals are “not bread to pick sultanas out of,” complained Alexander Grushko, the head of the country’s delegation in Brussels. When diplomacy fails, he thunders out the threat Nato would be “fighted with military means”.
If Russia does attack Ukraine, American officials have promised “massive” economic sanctions far in excess of those imposed after its previous attacks in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. They suggest separating Russia from the US FAST Network that connects banks and prohibits him from receiving goods with American electronics. The measures would be “like none he’s ever seen,” America’s President Joe Biden warned after speaking with Mr. Putin on December 7.
The Europeans have also considered sanctions against banks and people close to the Kremlin, says Sabine Fischer SWP, a think tank in Berlin, but they’re more nervous. There are “serious concerns” about throwing Russia out of office FAST, which is headquartered in Belgium, she says, because it would harm ordinary Russians and EU Sanctions should be targeted.
There is also uncertainty about the fate of Nord Stream 2, a controversial gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. American officials claim Germany has agreed to suspend the pipeline in the event of war. Germany’s coalition government remains divided on the issue, and some officials are wary of restricting gas supplies as Europe faces a looming energy crisis.
Ukraine itself, the focal point of the crisis, has largely stood on the fringes of this diplomacy. On Jan. 2, Mr. Biden spoke to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the second time in a month, and on Jan. 10, Mr. Stoltenberg welcomed the country’s Deputy Prime Minister to Brussels to show solidarity. However, Ukraine was only given one opportunity to take part in the talks, on OSCE Meeting widely seen as a sideshow.
Meanwhile, Russia has shown no sign of retreating (see map). Its build-up remains slow and not big enough for a “serious” offensive, says a European intelligence official. Russia has deployed equipment rather than fully manned units; Personnel would have to be flown in later. But the fact that the country has started sending troops out of its eastern military district, over 6,000 km from Ukraine, is a “terrible sign,” warns Rochan Consulting’s Konrad Muzyka, who follows Russian military movements. “My prediction is that these negotiations will end without success within a few months,” says Ruslan Pukhov, the director of POUR, think tank in Moscow. “The risk of war with Ukraine is very high.” ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading “Teetering at the Summit”