On the way to disaster? USA, Russia sharpens positions in negotiations on Ukraine

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on the right, welcomes Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko in the middle and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin ahead of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on 12 January 2022.Olivier Hoslet / Associated Press

The failure of last week’s high-profile diplomatic meetings to resolve the escalating tensions over Ukraine has brought Russia, the United States and its European allies into unknown territory after the Cold War, posing significant challenges for key players in avoiding a direct and potentially catastrophic confrontation. . .

Unlike previous disagreements that have arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current Ukraine crisis and seemingly insurmountable differences between Washington and Moscow involve real risks of disabling economic warfare and military conflict exacerbated by the dangers of miscalculation and overreaction.

For the United States and its NATO and other European allies, nothing less than a huge withdrawal of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops now stationed near the Ukrainian border will prove that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any intention of negotiating in good faith. For the Russians, the West’s absolute refusal to consider a ban on NATO enlargement and the withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe is proof of its perfidy.

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Potential concessions are complicated by the fact that neither Putin nor President Joe Biden want to be perceived as withdrawing from either domestic or foreign audiences.

The hitherto refusal of either side to climb down from what the other considers unrealistic and maximalist demands has left the prospect of diplomacy in limbo, with the United States and its allies accusing Russia of inciting tensions for no legitimate reason, and the Russians again complaining , that Americans are the aggressors.

Some believe that the situation must become even more serious before the stalemate can be broken.

“The gap in perceptions is so wide that a new and dangerous escalation may be necessary to force the parties to open their minds and seek agreements,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Foreign and Defense Policy Council. , in a comment.

To Western analysts, it appears to be a situation in which Putin will have to compromise if conflict is to be avoided. Some believe that Putin’s focus on NATO, which has struggled for years with questions about its relevance, may have given the alliance a new lease of life.

“This is an extremely uncertain and tense period without an obvious way out unless Putin withdraws,” said Jeff Rathke, a European expert and former US diplomat who is currently president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. University.

“He has spoken himself into a madness that is hard to walk away from if he does not get the fundamental redesign of European security architecture that he claims to want. He has shown that he is ready to play chicken with the threat of massive military force to achieve it, and he has certainly got everyone’s attention, but he has not changed anyone’s views, Rathke said.

U.S. officials from Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to chief negotiator Wendy Sherman have said it is Russia that is facing a “strong election”. Deescalates or faces sanctions and the opposite of what it wants: an increased NATO presence in Eastern Europe and a more well-armed Ukraine.

But in Russia, officials say the shoe is on the other foot. They have put forward their demands as an “absolute imperative” and have argued that the Western failure to fulfill them makes negotiations on other issues irrelevant.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the United States and Russia reached “some understandings” during last week’s talks. “But in general, in principle, we can now say that we are staying on different tracks, on totally different tracks, and that’s not good, and that’s disturbing,” he said in an interview on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” to be broadcast on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Russia had tried in vain for years to persuade the United States and its allies to enter into negotiations on the non-deployment of medium-range missiles to Europe, the limits of war games and rules to avoid dangerously close meetings between Russian and Allied warships. aircraft until the United States and NATO expressed willingness to discuss these issues this week.

He attributed the change in approach to a US desire to shift attention away from Russia’s key demands, adding that Moscow will focus on NATO non-enlargement. And he insisted that it is the United States that formulates the position in the negotiations, while other allies are simply marching on their orders.

“To be honest, everyone understands that the prospect of reaching an agreement depends on the United States,” Lavrov said. He said that everything the United States says about the need to consult allies in negotiations is “just excuses and attempts to drag out the process.”

So the dead water.

The West’s approach has been to have “as much diplomatic effort as possible to de-escalate,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia.

“The problem we have is that the Russians are serious and they have shown us in a lot of cases, in 2014, in 2008, that they are ready to go to war to get these things, and we are not,” he said. “And that’s the challenge.”

The harsh and uncompromising Russian positions have led some to believe that Moscow will only go up after receiving what all sides expect will be formal, written denials from the United States and NATO to comply with their demands.

In fact, Russia’s chief negotiator in the negotiations, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, on Thursday suggested that Moscow could respond to rejections by escalating cases outside Europe through the potential deployment of troops to Cuba and Venezuela. The United States has called such a proposal a “bluster” and said it would react decisively if it did.

“The lack of a diplomatic solution logically leads to a further aggravation of the crisis,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in an online analysis.

Trenin predicted that a set of “military-technical measures” that Putin said Russia would take if the West rejected its demands could include “a wide range of movements … from deploying new weapons systems in different regions to much stronger ones.” military ties with Belarus and closer coordination with Chinese partners. “

Still, there is a risk that Putin, by focusing his anger on NATO, may have inadvertently strengthened his hand, especially with his newer members such as the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

“For countries that have joined NATO since the Cold War, one can certainly say that NATO is more relevant to them now than it was a year ago or in 2014,” Rathke said. “Anyone who thought NATO was no longer relevant to European security has been given a lesson in the last few months. And it’s only getting worse.”

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