To many observers, it would seem we have entered a new Cold War. On Monday, U.S. and Russian diplomatic officials met in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss Russian security concerns, including nuclear arms control, missile placement in Europe, and NATO’s eastward expansion. Despite both parties’ stated desire to lower tensions on the Ukraine border and come to an agreement, no progress was made on the latter issue, Reuters reports.
Speaking to the press after a historic, seven hour meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that “this is one of the areas we have the greatest difference with the U.S. The U.S. suggests that there is no way that Russia or whoever else may ever speak on these types of issues but we underscore that for us it’s absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never ever becomes a member of NATO.” He went on to stress that they “need ironclad, waterproof, bullet-proof, legally binding guarantees, and not just “assurances.”
In a separate briefing, his American counterpart, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said that “the U.S. was firm in pushing back on security proposals that are ‘non-starters,’ adding that “Washington won’t allow anyone to slam shut NATO’s open door policy.”
Expectations before the bilateral talks’ commencement were already low. Earlier, the U.S. insisted that Russia make concessions, but these proved problematic for the country, since the topics requiring compromise pertained to non-negotiables—especially the possibility of admitting Ukraine into NATO.
In a Sunday interview with Russian media, Ryabkov reiterated his country’s red line:
Even a layman understands that demanding concessions from Russia in a situation where NATO has been striving throughout the past decades to ‘drive back’ our country and turn it—if not into a subordinate—then at least to a secondary role in European and international politics and to do so with direct damage to our security, will no longer work. This is all in the past.
Deploring the incursion of the Western military alliance into territory which Russia prefers to keep within its sphere of influence, Ryabkov added that “NATO needs to collect up its belongings and go back to the borders of 1997.”
Russia’s intransigence towards further NATO expansion could bring about the opposite scenario however. Finnish and Swedish politicians have already voiced a consideration of membership.
Sweden’s prime minister Magdalena Andersson has talked about “deepening the partnership between Sweden and NATO” and “in Sweden, it is we ourselves who get to decide on our foreign and security policy and who we choose to cooperate with.” Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö has said, “Freedom of choice also includes the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership.”
For Secretary of State Sherman, the mission of de-escalating the Ukraine crisis, was clear. The route getting there, much less so. Achieving this without acceding too much to Moscow, and thereby degrading the security of Kyiv or NATO allies in the region, is certain to be a herculean task.
Before the talks, other high-ranking U.S. officials expressed skepticism. Speaking to U.S. media on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that, with Russia “having a gun to the head of Ukraine with 100,000 troops near its borders,” and the “possibility of doubling that in very short order,” he did not expect any breakthroughs at the upcoming talks. Reducing the number of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe and barring Ukraine from NATO was also out of the question. He would however consider some leeway on the issue of NATO drills. To further assuage Russian concerns, he also suggested that “there may be grounds for renewing” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was unilaterally scrapped in 2019.
Blinken has been an outspoken opponent of what he terms “Russian aggression.” In an earlier press briefing, Blinken described the Russians as tactless intruders: “one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”
Among the commentariat within the U.S., considerable discourse over the issue has ensued, as a recent Financial Times article showed. Perhaps the most salient comment came from senior fellow at Carnegie Europe Judy Dempsey, who said that “Putin is going into these talks with a very strong hand . . . I think this meeting is misjudged,” and that “the summit would only yield marginal success if the West went in united together and they had a serious negotiation strategy. And they don’t have one.”
Other officials have warned that, should the U.S. make good on their threat of economic sanctions on Russia in case of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, the decision could backfire. Within the framework of a globalized economy, not only Europe (especially considering its already fraught gas supply, with Russia being a prime supplier) would suffer, but the U.S. as well. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has already floated the idea of a joint gas procurement arrangement by EU countries to guard against such a scenario.
Multilateral talks were held in Brussels on January 12th at a NATO-Russia Council meeting, with an OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Permanent Council meeting in Vienna scheduled the next day.
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.