The Kremlin may still want to reignite hostilities with Ukraine — but Moscow would prefer it looked as though it came about as a consequence of Western intransigence, Konstantin Eggert writes.
“Short take on Geneva today: it could have been worse.”
Samuel Charap, a US Rand Corporation Russia expert and one of the West’s loudest voices of Putin “accommodation,” with those words tried to put a positive spin on Monday’s talks between the US and Russian delegations.
But Mr. Charap is wrong.
The Kremlin would have never let the talks on Putin’s demands — specifically when it comes to the US and NATO’s “security guarantees” — collapse so soon. Putin is known to treasure his image as unpredictable and dangerous. But he also knows that to look convincing, he has to play by the rules of international statecraft and show he has tried hard to convince his Western opponents.
Even if he still plans to reignite hostilities with Ukraine, he has to cloak it as a result of Western intransigence for the sake of both Russian public opinion as well as those still willing to listen to his arguments elsewhere.
There is a NATO-Russia Council session in Brussels planned for Wednesday and another with the OSCE on Thursday. However, it is talks with the American administration that Moscow considers to be of primary importance.
It is fairly safe to predict that there will be several more rounds of diplomatic conversations before Putin decides to pull the plug on them — or keep on talking if he feels he is about to get at least part of what he wants.
Putin’s emissary in Geneva, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, insisted after concluding talks with his US counterpart Wendy Sherman that Moscow still expects NATO to give “ironclad” guarantees that NATO will never approve membership for Ukraine and Georgia, as well as restrict its activities in Central Europe and the Baltic states. Russian officials repeat time and again that there can be no compromise on these demands. US representatives also repeatedly described them as a non-starter.
Washington insists it will not discuss Ukraine without the Ukrainians and NATO without all its allies. It is only prepared to talk with Moscow about a mutual decrease in the number of military exercises, plus “confidence-building measures,” a diplomatic term for transparency and notification mechanisms to prevent military accidents.
The Americans also seem ready to explore the possibility of a new treaty on intermediate-range missiles instead of the one that the US left in 2019 after claiming Russia was in breach of it.
However, the Kremlin claims that these issues have nothing to do with security guarantees which it wants to receive within a short time. Ryabkov dismissed US attempts to press for withdrawal of the Russian forces massed on the Ukrainian border.
What are the Kremlin’s Options?
An experienced politician, Putin must have known the US reaction even before he issued his ultimatum last December. What he seems to want is either a total collapse of talks with the US and NATO so it will set him free to threaten Ukraine, recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” or try to grab more Ukrainian territory while simultaneously claiming it was all due to Western intransigence.
This will mean more international sanctions, although Putin may have concluded by now that Russia can withstand them.
Another option for the Kremlin would be to pull the US and its European allies deeper into negotiations, maybe adding such topics as Russia’s assistance in curbing the Taliban threat to Central Asia and working on a new Iranian nuclear deal — and then issue a new set of modified demands centered on Ukraine and NATO.
Moscow may hope then for its European advocates to argue for more concessions. His upcoming talks with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will provide an early opportunity to test the key US ally’s resolve.
What seems unlikely is that Putin will simply settle on the standard menu of US-Russian disarmament talks, as the Americans would have talked to him about it, anyway.