So high are the efforts put by Russia over Europe’s future security architecture, and so imminent is the threat of war in Ukraine that the three separate meetings arranged between Russia and the West this week are comparable to some of the great Western-Russian exchanges of the past, from Yalta in 1945 to Paris in 1960, on the future of Berlin and Reykjavík in 1986.
Vladimir Putin, with his keen sense of place in Russian history, would probably revel in these comparisons. The very planning of the three meetings – a bilateral security meeting with the United States on Monday, a rare meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Ukraine on Thursday – are of some seen as a mistake.
Françoise Thom, a historian from Russia based at the Sorbonne, said: “There is nothing more dangerous than these summit exchanges, which, no matter what one may say, inevitably feed into the paranoia or delusions of Russian ruling elites about greatness and intoxication of power. The West is firm, the Kremlin concludes, it wants to destroy Russia; If the West makes concessions, the Kremlin concludes that it is weak and pressure should increase.
“Very often the best policy towards Russia is silence and distance: do nothing, say nothing and stand firm. To hold on to dialogue at all costs, especially when Moscow keeps us in arms like a mad man holding a hostage “only shows our weakness and encourages the Kremlin to escalate.”
But Joe Biden has clearly assumed that with Allied self-discipline and unity, the risk of being seen as rewarding for Putin is outweighed by the need for dialogue and diplomatic reconnaissance.
Not to speak would be to feed the Russian narrative that the West is not even ready to listen. Moreover, it is billed as a dialogue, not a negotiation, officials say.
The specific agenda for each meeting next week is subtly different, and while the West wants the discussion to focus on Ukraine’s sovereignty and missile placement, Russia wants an answer to its triple formal demands made last month in draft treaties: the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, the removal of NATO forces close to Russian borders and the legal permanent waiver of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, as part of a commitment to conclude NATO enlargement.
It has somehow been the permanent demands of the Russian political elite for the last 20 years. Putin’s demands can be compared to Dmitry Medvedev’s largely ignored proposal for a European Security Treaty in 2009, but this time the demands are presented in a more compelling way. In fact, some Western officials fear they have been packaged to be rejected.
In Ukraine, there are concerns that dialogue with Russia on Europe’s future security architecture, under threat of extortion and without a formal presence of the EU bloc, will be taken as a justification by Putin. From Putin’s perspective, he has already made progress and can do more. Russian think tanks like IMEMO, for example, claim that the meeting shows that “the ice is already broken”.
It is the bread and butter of diplomacy to assess whether to “pair” – as Churchill put it – with an opponent either in the open or through a back channel, or instead of getting stuck and waiting. Never is that verdict more acute than in the case of Russia.
The Cold War American diplomat George Kennan’s claim was that “Moscow is a special case”. It saw security “only in [a] patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of [the] rival power, never in compact and compromises with it ”. He said that under Stalin, the Soviet Union was a master at distorting bromide-American offers of dialogue, for example about the future of Berlin in April 1949, into a full-scale offer to redraw the map of Europe. The solution was patience and containment.
Henry Kissinger was to claim for a time that the State Department was populated by naive men who believed that well-constructed arguments could persuade Russia. The whole idea of signing treaties with Russia was to misunderstand the mentality. Russia, it was said, operated by probing for weaknesses, “by kicking to every door and seeing which fell off their hinges.”
Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Secretary of State for War in the UK, made a similar point in his diaries about asymmetry in talking to Russia: “Everything favors the evil. Every honest government fights (in peacetime) with two hands tied behind its back. The Russians’ brilliant “Obviously, this is something we can admire, but we can not imitate. It gives them a great advantage.”
In contrast, the instinct of most politicians is often to talk to or seek a reset or rely on personal charm. Churchill once said that all the problems of the world could be solved if only he could meet Joseph Stalin once a week. John F Kennedy argued that it was better to “meet at the summit than at the brink,” something the United States tried more regularly after the shock of the Cuban missile crisis. Famous at the 1986 conference in Reykjavík, a personal relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev led them to the brink of abandoning nuclear weapons. George Shultz, the US Secretary of State, recalled that in advance “there was a unique sense of insecurity in the air … Nothing seemed predictable”. Gorbachev’s surprise plan, almost taken up by Reagan, showed the value of dialogue, although Margaret Thatcher later confided her despair at Reagan to Robin Butler, her cabinet secretary: “He knows nothing, Robin.”
Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush, did not promise more chaotic Reykjaviks, but at a summit in Malta in 1989, the first meeting since the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was also captured by Gorbachev’s sense that history was unfolding (“The United States and USSR are doomed to to cooperate for a long time “) and by his prayer that” we have to give up the images of an enemy “. , which opened the long argument about the terms of NATO’s expansion to the east, starting with East Germany.
With Gorbachev crushed by the events, Bill and Boris followed the show. Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, tasked with integrating Russia into the international system, met face to face 18 times, often in conflict over NATO enlargement, leading Yeltsin to describe a cold peace. The highlight may have been the Birmingham Summit in 1998, when the relationship was so intimate that they exchanged their respective confidential briefing cards. That relationship probably broke down in a phone call of uncontrolled rage over NATO bombing of Serbia a year later. It showed that when fundamental interests are in conflict, as they did over NATO, personal relationships only lead you so far.
Then the era of two men sitting alone to solve the world was over. Barack Obama signed a new strategic arms control treaty, Start, in April 2010 with Medvedev, but Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 caused the reset to expire.
Basically, the controversy over the wisdom of the dialogue is about whether Russia is considered to be driven by insecurity or imperialist expansionism. In political terms, this meant choosing between an emphasis on arms control or NATO enlargement.
But there is also the reluctance of a professional diplomat against unstructured large assemblies, whether they involve Russia or not. Harold Nicolson argued after a long diplomatic career in the Commons in 1935: “It is a terrible mistake to conduct negotiations between foreign ministers … international negotiations were best left to professionals. Diplomacy is not the art of conversation. It is the art of exchanging documents in a carefully considered and precise form and in such a way that they can not be rejected later… Diplomacy at conference is a mistake. ”
The concern of the professional diplomat is that in the emotions of the moment, determination disappears, and preset red lines are rubbed off, and allies betrayed.
With the Biden administration, the expectation is that this week’s discussions will be far more structured, predictable and scripted. In theory, since none of the principals – Biden and Putin – will be present in Geneva, there should be no rush of blood to the heads of men of good will, but instead an outpouring of familiar positions.
The US communication, backed by the UK, has been carefully framed and seems well coordinated with Europe. Enlargement of NATO was inherent in NATO’s founding law signed by Boris Yeltsin in 1997. No country can determine another country’s foreign alliances, as Russia agreed in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, and again in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. In the words of Sauli Niinistö , the Finnish President, in his striking New Year’s speech: “Spheres of interest do not belong to the 2020s. The sovereign equality of all states is the fundamental principle that everyone should respect.”
But the test, according to Evelyn Farkas, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, will be whether Putin sees this week’s negotiations as a piece of political theater, a moment to issue an ultimatum, or whether he’s sanctioning Russia’s weed. begins to negotiate. Few have much hope for the latter.
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