After a grueling week of crisis diplomacy, questions remain unanswered. Is the Russian president deliberately making unachievable demands to justify a war? Or is it about something completely different?
Around eight hours in Geneva, four hours in Brussels and finally another five hours in Vienna – in three rounds of talks, top Russian and Western diplomats have come no closer to security in Europe. The sides of the conflict were already divergent when it came to their goals. While the envoys of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin wanted to negotiate an end to NATO’s eastward expansion and other security guarantees, NATO and the USA were primarily concerned with persuading Russia to break off the troop deployment on the border with Ukraine.
But even after the marathon of negotiations, the question of whether Putin is planning an attack on Ukraine, which is of fundamental importance for Europe’s security, still remains. And it’s about how things will continue after these most extensive talks since Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014. The giant empire, which the West has long avoided on these security issues, has managed to get everyone around the table.
However, it was also foreseeable from a Russian point of view that Putin would rebuff his demands that NATO not accept Ukraine and other states. Russia is now demonstratively disappointed. But the nuclear power, which sees itself threatened by the US military and by NATO in general, is now waiting for proposals from the West – in “written form” by next week, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized on Friday.
The West, on the other hand, is keeping the Russian deployment near the Ukrainian border in suspense. According to US information, more than 100,000 soldiers are now there. An invasion of the neighboring country would be a huge mistake and would entail unprecedented economic and financial sanctions, was one of the messages from the West. At the same time, Moscow was offered new negotiations on disarmament and arms control.
Russian soldiers in Kazakhstan: Many troops have recently been assembled in the Ukrainian border area. (Source: imago images)
This is a response to the fact that Russia says its security is threatened by the West. The country is being surrounded by US “bridgeheads,” Lavrov said. Moscow has been criticizing for weeks that the West is always demanding a withdrawal of Russian troops – but does not say where, because the soldiers are already on Russian territory. From a Western perspective, it is clear that the main reason why Putin had the military pull together in Ukraine, which is also concerned about its security, was to exert pressure and force the West to hold talks.
He succeeded. And one of the most frequently asked questions at Lavrov’s meeting with journalists in Moscow was how concrete Russia’s threats of military countermeasures are. Lavrov referred to Putin, who recently said that the answers from the USA and NATO would first be awaited, and then it would be the turn of the Russian military – with proposals.
Most recently, Lavrov’s deputy Sergei Ryabkov, one of the negotiators who did not want to rule out missiles in Cuba or Venezuela, drew attention. The idea is that Russia will also become more active in the US forecourt – just as the United States is present in Europe – in Putin’s opinion, in an area where Moscow has interests of its own.
How it all turns out is completely open. And the problem for NATO is that it can only speculate about Putin’s intentions. Western secret services recently assumed that Putin wanted to extort concessions from NATO and the USA with the deployment of troops. It is therefore also considered conceivable that Putin has concrete plans for an invasion of Ukraine in order to rule out the country’s admission to NATO. The excuse could then be that the West is to blame for not taking Russia’s concerns seriously. Moscow rejects such mind games.
However, US President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, made it clear on Thursday that the US still considers the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine to be high. Finally, there remains the possibility that Putin could simply be concerned with demonstrating that Russia, like the US and China, is a world power that can set the international agenda. Perhaps also to divert attention from domestic political problems or to put NATO, already weakened by the Afghanistan debacle, to a new test.
And the members are not as united as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg would like. For example, there is disagreement about what sanctions should be considered in the event of Russian intervention in Ukraine. In Germany, for example, there are doubts as to whether it would make sense to also resort to punitive measures that would have a significant impact on the citizens of Russia. These include, for example, those that would restrict payment transactions or the export of western consumer electronics to Russia.
There are also fears in some countries that an operating ban on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline could lead to a further increase in energy prices in Europe – with the result that European citizens will not support the sanctions.
At least there is potential for conflict in Russia’s demands, also in German domestic politics. Putin, like politicians from the SPD and the Greens, is demanding a withdrawal of US nuclear weapons stationed in Germany. Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who plans to travel to Moscow for talks next week, was tight-lipped on the question. “Questions of disarmament must and should be discussed. But now that you’ve just sat down at the table, I’m not openly commenting on any individual considerations,” said the Green politician.