Can Talks With Russia Diffuse the Ukraine Crisis?

Can Talks With Russia Diffuse the Ukraine Crisis?

As the Ukraine crisis deepens, Russia and the West dig in for a second round of high-stakes security talks.

As the Ukraine crisis deepens, Russia and the West dig in for a second round of high-stakes security talks.

U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has delivered Washington’s written response to Russia’s security demands to Moscow. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the response, which was presented to Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, “sets out a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it.” The response was reportedly shared with Kiev, America’s European allies, and Congress. Washington has asked Russia that the document’s contents not be made public, with Blinken adding that “diplomacy has the best chance to succeed if we provide space for confidential talks.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow will honor Washington’s request but added that the Kremlin reserves the right to communicate the “essence” of the response to the Russian public. Lavrov later expressed disappointment with the response, saying Thursday that there “is no positive reaction” on the “main issue” of the security demands published by the Kremlin in December. “The main issue is our clear position on the inadmissibility of further expansion of NATO to the East and the deployment of strike weapons that could threaten the territory of the Russian Federation,” he specified.

Lavrov called on the West to heed what he described as agreements signed within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). “We present non-verbal promises, written documents signed by the leaders of all the OSCE countries, including the President of the United States (Istanbul Declaration of 1999, Astana Declaration of 2010), our Western partners have to get out from a more serious situation,” he said. “This principle is clearly stated. It has two main interrelated approaches. First, the right of every state to freely choose military alliances is recognized. Second: the obligation of each state not to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of others. In other words, the right to choose alliances is clearly conditioned by the need to take into account the security interests of any other OSCE state, including the Russian Federation.”

Lavrov, who previously appeared to downplay the significance of the OSCE as a venue for productive dialogue, added that Moscow intends to press its Western counterparts for concrete answers regarding the Kremlin’s interpretation of prior OSCE documents.

Western officials have consistently said the alliance’s “open-door” policy for prospective members—including Ukraine and Georgia—remains non-negotiable. During bilateral talks in Geneva earlier this month, U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman dismissed Russia’s demand for legally-binding assurances that Ukraine will never join NATO as a “non-starter.”

Although Washington supports proposals to bolster NATO’s military presence on the alliance’s eastern flank, the Biden administration said it has ruled out direct U.S. military intervention in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. That decision is reflective of U.S. public opinion—according to recent polling from the Convention of States Action (COSA) with the Trafalgar Group, fewer than one-in-six, or 15.3 percent, of Americans support putting U.S. boots on the ground in the event of a Ukraine invasion scenario. By stark contrast, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that as many as 52 percent of Americans support using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan from a prospective Chinese attack.

Beijing weighed in on the Ukraine crisis earlier this week, offering its most resolute statement of support yet for the Russian diplomatic position. In a phone call with Blinken, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously and resolved,” adding that Beijing fully supports the implementation of the Minsk Agreements—a framework for the reincorporation of the breakaway, pro-Russian Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as a de-facto autonomous region.

As the two sides gear up for a second round of security talks, Washington continues to sound the alarm over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation in Eastern Europe is “now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack in Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. But Kiev has begun to take a different tone, with top Ukrainian officials now saying that a Russian attack is not imminent. “I don’t consider the situation now more tense than before,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.  “There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case.”

The increasing divergence in rhetoric between Kiev and Washington came to a head in a recent phone call between Biden and Zelensky that a senior Ukrainian official reportedly said, “did not go well.” The Ukrainian president urged his counterpart to “calm down the messaging,” telling Biden that the continued state of emergency in Ukraine is wreaking havoc on his country’s economy and public morale. According to a CNN’s account of the phone call, Zelensky expressed hope for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. The Ukrainian official told CNN that Biden disagreed, telling Zelensky that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is now a virtual certainty once the ground freezes later in February. The White House has disputed CNN’s account, with National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne accusing CNN’s source of “leaking falsehoods.”

The points allegedly raised in the Biden-Zelensky call are the clearest illustration yet of what appears to be a growing rift between Kiev and Washington in assessing the Ukraine crisis. In a press conference held the following day, Zelensky again urged Western leaders to tone down their rhetoric. “They are saying tomorrow is the war. This means panic,” he said. “I’m the President of Ukraine, I’m based here, and I think I know the details deeper than any other President,” Zelensky added. The Ukrainian president reiterated that he intends to press the West for concrete answers regarding Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects. In a press conference given earlier this month, Biden suggested that Ukraine will not be joining the alliance anytime soon. Zelensky denied any “misunderstandings” between him and Biden, but cryptically noted that he can withhold certain information from Washington. “I think that I, as the president of a sovereign country, can have my own secrets, just like the U.S. president.”

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.