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Nearing the Breaking Point: Continued Tensions in Russia-West Relations by Tristan Vanheuckelom

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Nearing the Breaking Point: Continued Tensions in Russia-West Relations

This week, diplomats around the globe have gained a case study to pore over for years to come. After an earlier negotiation in Geneva ran aground, now a second and third round of talks between Russia and Western allies have failed to deliver a compromise.

Russia’s talks with U.S. and NATO officials over the past week aimed to discuss its security proposals, which it made public last December. Of most concern to Moscow is further NATO presence in Ukraine and, especially, the country’s (or Georgia’s) possible membership to it—all red lines which, when crossed, Russia has repeatedly stressed will elicit a military response. Western allies meanwhile point to Russia’s military build-up along the Ukrainian border, where currently an estimated 100,000 Russian troops are bunkered and, in the wake of the unsuccessful talks, were holding drills on Friday. These troops, they say, indicate preparations for an invasion of Ukraine. Russia has denied these claims. 

During the latest meeting, at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russian Ambassador Alexander Lukashevich called it “really disappointing,” and said that “we do not need peace at any cost. The need to obtain these legally formalized security guarantees for us is unconditional.” While talking to reporters, he warned of possible “catastrophic consequences” if the two sides could not agree on these red lines. He did however go on to say that Moscow had not given up on diplomacy and would even speed it up.

Russia’s negotiator during the first meeting in Geneva, Sergey Ryabkov, has affirmed his colleague’s stance, saying that the meetings had come to a “dead end” and showed a “difference of approaches,” but that “hope springs eternal,” and that “we need to continue being insistent to achieve the right course and the right evolution on the Western side. This is what we will continue doing.” While he confirmed that military specialists were providing options to President Vladimir Putin in case the situation around Ukraine worsened, he reiterated that “dialogue is still underway at many levels and in many directions.”

While equally committed to a diplomatic solution, Western officials’ projections were grim. To reporters, U.S. Ambassador Michael Carpenter said that escalation is not impossible, and that “the drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill.” In a speech where he outlined his country’s priorities as current holder of the OSCE’s chairmanship, Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau stated that “the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years.” He then went on to say that “we should focus on a peaceful resolution of the conflict in and around Ukraine, in compliance with the Minsk Agreements, and in full respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders.” It is a cruel irony perhaps, that it is exactly at this moment in time that Poland—a country historically wedged between (and often taken over by or passed to) greater powers—is now heading an organization which deals with the continent’s security.

The rub in maintaining that security, of course, lies in the red lines themselves. Since the U.S. and its allies in NATO have called Russia’s conditions “non-starters” (NATO expansion to Ukraine, and also to Georgia), any budging on these does not seem likely. 

An animated map of the expansion of NATO from its 1949 founding to 2020.

Photo: Arz, CC BY-SA 3.0.

What, for the time being, is negotiable for the West is a possible restricting or even ban of intermediate missiles, as long as the former “is reciprocal, balanced and verifiable,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday. He however specified that such talks should not be conducted publicly. In effect, such an arrangement would mean a resurrection of the formerly scrapped Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Its termination in 2019 by Washington came because of Russia’s violations of it, Stoltenberg claimed. Should these talks take place, it could allay at least some of the fears Russia had about a NATO presence in Ukraine, and provide a way out of both parties’ current predicament. With no legally binding agreement, however, it is unlikely the Russians will accede. 

Meanwhile, skepticism in Moscow, after it received word of a proposed sanctions bill by Washington, has reached new heights. Not only would the bill target top Russian government and military officials (including President Vladimir Putin), Russian companies and key banking institutions would also be penalized by their removal from the SWIFT international payments system if Moscow engages in hostilities against Ukraine. It would also put provisions in place to help bolster Ukraine’s security and “consider all available and appropriate measures” to ensure that the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—a “tool of malign influence of the Russian Federation”—does not become operational. 

Needless to say, such a move could potentially antagonize Germany, the U.S.’ most important European ally, which is currently in the process of shutting down coal and nuclear plants, and would therefore need a reliable supply of gas, presumably coming out of Russia. Such a boycott would affect energy needs of other European countries, as well. 

Nevertheless, obstructing Nord Stream 2 would serve Ukrainian interests. Such action would maintain Ukraine’s transit revenue from the transportation of Russian gas, which is Ukraine’s essential bargaining chip in relation to its northern neighbor. 

Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov called the bill “the result of their mental disorder … we have no aggressive intentions towards Ukraine,” stressing that “it seems that U.S. politicians have launched the myth of an ‘imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine’ in the media and are now facing their own phobias.” The Russian ambassador went on to “recommend American lawmakers to engage in the formation of a bipartisan consensus on the withdrawal of the USA from the deepest economic and political crisis.”

Adding to Ukraine’s unease, Ukrainian authorities are currently investigating the source behind a cyberattack, which hit key government bodies, and contained messages such as “be afraid and expect the worst.”

Meanwhile, at a news conference on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged all foreign partners to “unite” and “come to terms the adult way,” but that he expects “written responses,” and that they put “their proposals on paper like we did.” Only through such measures, he said, could “the vows not to strengthen somebody’s security at the expense of others be translated into reality.”

Either way, as things stand, something—or more aptly put, somebody—has to give. If that side saves face while doing it, it could very well result in the diplomatic coup of the century.

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.

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