The US has told Vladimir Putin to choose between dialogue and confrontation on the eve of a critical week of diplomacy over Ukraine as Russian troops remained massed along its borders.
Senior diplomats and military officers from the US and Russia held a working dinner in Geneva on Sunday evening before Monday’s formal negotiations to discuss Moscow’s demands. Those were set out last month in two draft treaties, one with the US and one with Nato. Much of their content is unacceptable to Washington and the alliance, most importantly a pledge that Ukraine will never be a Nato member.
The head of the Russian delegation, the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, described the Sunday night dinner meeting, held at the residence of the US ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament overlooking Lake Geneva, as “amazing”.
“The conversation was difficult, but businesslike, we plunged into the matter of the upcoming affairs. I think that tomorrow we will not waste time. I never lose my optimism, I am always guided by it,” Ryabkov said.
The head of the US delegation, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, “stressed the United States’ commitment to the international principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances”, according to a State Department account of the dinner. It said she told the Russians that the US would however “welcome genuine progress through diplomacy”.
Russia has 100,000 troops positioned near Ukraine and a similar number are primed to be mobilised at short notice, according to the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who said on Sunday that the week’s diplomacy was a moment of truth for the Russian president.
“There are two paths before us,” he told CNN. “There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation. The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We’re about to test the proposition about which path President Putin’s prepared to take.”
The Biden administration insists that sovereign states’ right to apply for Nato membership is not negotiable. Nor are US troop deployments in Europe, administration officials have stressed. They said, however, that Washington would discuss other security guarantees, such as mutual limits on missile deployments and military exercises on the continent. That would fall far short of the comprehensive changes Moscow is demanding.
Few if any diplomatic observers expect a quick deal to resolve the crisis this week, and the opposite – a complete breakdown – is possible. It should quickly become apparent whether Russia is interested in negotiating over its proposals or whether they were designed to be rejected, creating a pretext for a war that Putin has already decided on.
“We’re about to test the proposition of which path President Putin wants to take this week,” Blinken, told the ABC News programme This Week. “And the question really now is whether President Putin will take the path of diplomacy and dialogue or seek confrontation.”
“Lower your expectations and then lower them some more,” said Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Watch Moscow’s demands in the meetings. If Russia insists that Nato cannot expand ever again, we will know that Moscow is preparing for war in Ukraine, since this is a red line for the west.”
Sherman and Ryabkov lead teams of senior diplomats and defence officials. Sherman was accompanied to the Sunday night dinner in Geneva by Lieutenant General James Mingus, the Joint Staff director of operations, Ryabkov by Russia’s deputy defence, Colonel General Aleksandr Fomin.
France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, complained on Sunday that the EU was being excluded from the talks, an omission that he said played into Putin’s hands by dividing the west. “Europeans shouldn’t be absent from the negotiation table,” he told the CNEWS TV network.
The State Department account of the Sunday night dinner said the US would talk about certain bilateral issues with Russia in Geneva, “but will not discuss European security without our European allies and partners”. France and other European states will be represented at the two other rounds of talks over the course of the week.
The negotiating teams will move to Brussels on Wednesday for a session of the Nato-Russia Council, in which all 30 alliance members will take part. It will be the first such meeting since 2019 of the council, which was established in 2002 to defuse tensions and build consensus.
The next day there will be a meeting in Vienna of the permanent council of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), chaired by Poland. Representatives will be on a more junior, ambassadorial level than the Nato session the previous day. It will, however, be imbued with particular significance because it will include non-Nato European states such as Finland and Sweden, who are contemplating their future in light of Russia‘s pressure on Ukraine. Finnish leaders in particular have hinted heavily in the past few days that they might look anew at Nato membership.
“We believe that after bilateral talks with the United States and then the Nato format, in this wider forum, some developments are possible,” said Nikodem Rachoń, the spokesperson for the Polish embassy in Washington.
The OSCE talks are the only negotiations in which Ukraine will take part, though its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, announced a parallel bilateral diplomatic initiative directly with Moscow last month.
Washington says the US-Russia meeting in Geneva would primarily be an opportunity to present positions rather than resolve them.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any breakthroughs next week. We’re going to listen to their concerns; they’ll listen to our concerns, and we’ll see if there are grounds for progress,” Blinken said. “But to make actual progress, it’s very hard to see that happening when there’s an ongoing escalation, when Russia has a gun to the head of Ukraine, with 100,000 troops near its borders, [and] the possibility of doubling that in very short order. So, if we’re seeing de-escalation, if we’re seeing a reduction in tensions, that is the kind of environment in which we could make real progress.”
In Geneva, Sherman will also list the costs to Russia if it goes ahead with military action in Ukraine, including sweeping financial sanctions, possibly cutting it off from the international electronic payments system Swift, and limits on its citizens’ ability to buy western technology.
According to the New York Times, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, has also warned his Russian counterpart, Gen Valery Gerasimov, that an invasion would face a long insurgency, backed by advanced US weaponry. US officials have refused to comment on reports that Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were being sent to Ukraine in anticipation of such a guerrilla war.
“This week’s diplomacy is critical. From a certain moment it was clear that the west would not say an outright no to Moscow’s proposal because too much was at stake. The question was, how far Washington and Europeans are ready to go with the talks,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
Russia’s rushed military intervention in Kazakhstan has thrown another wildcard on to the table, but Baklitskiy does not expect it to have any impact on the Ukraine crisis. “There is no direct link between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Even the people handling the issue in Russia are different, except for the very top,” he said.
Others say it is too early to tell whether the uprising and the response will unnerve or embolden the Kremlin. “To what extent are the Russians worried about Kazakhstan or believe they can manage it? I don’t think we have a feel for that yet,” one European diplomat said.
If there is wriggle room at all in this week’s negotiations, it could come in one of a handful of categories. The Biden administration and Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, have ruled out bowing to Russian demands to preclude Ukraine’s membership of the alliance, but some analysts say that leaves open the possibility of a compromise, in which the theoretical possibility of membership is asserted at the same time as a clear statement that there would be many obstacles to overcome and so it would not happen in the near future.
That may be palatable in Washington and Nato capitals, but it may well not be enough for Putin. “Frankly, I’d be surprised if it was,” the European diplomat said. “Given their demands, I think they prefer to have the issue not addressed at all. Otherwise it shows they haven’t got their demand about Ukraine not joining Nato written down.”
US officials have repeatedly denied reports that Washington would negotiate on troop deployments in Europe but said they were willing to discuss reciprocal limits on missile deployments and military exercises.
“Russia has said it feels threatened by the prospect of offensive missile systems being placed in Ukraine. As President Biden told President Putin, the United States has no intention of doing that. So, this is one area where we may be able to reach an understanding if Russia is willing to make a reciprocal commitment,” the senior US administration official said.
Blinken said the US was also open to talking about limits on missiles previously banned by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2019 following longstanding US complaints of Russian violations.
“There may be grounds for renewing that,” Blinken said, adding that there could also be limits on war games.
“There are agreements on the deployment of conventional forces in Europe, things like the scope and scale of exercises that if adhered to reciprocally – that is, Russia makes good on its commitments, which it’s repeatedly violated – then there are grounds for reducing tensions, creating greater transparency, creating greater confidence,” he said. “All of which would address concerns that Russia purports to have.”
Missiles and war games are both areas where Russia has called for limits, albeit only on the US and Nato’s activities. It is an open question whether Putin would be satisfied with deals in these areas without some radical change in Ukraine’s status.
“Putin could go back and say we’ve been assured that there’s no imminent admission of Ukraine to Nato and we have assurances there will be no strike weapons – combat aircraft, missiles – or US bases in Ukraine,” said Rajan Menon, a political scientist at the City University of New York. “But will Russians insist that this be put in writing? That’s the sticky part.”
The most severe limiting factor in the negotiations could turn out to be the political constraints on the main parties.
“If you look at the polarisation here, it suggests that we have no bandwidth on the US side to actually do anything, sue for peace, let alone come up with a treaty or series of treaties,” said Fiona Hill, a former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the US national security council. “Putin has his own time frame of elections in 2024, and he wants to have something to show because his own popularity is lagging somewhat.”
The deployment of so many troops and the Kremlin’s rhetoric have set high Russian expectations of what would constitute a satisfactory outcome from the week’s diplomacy. Officials in Moscow have insisted that nothing short of “legally formulated guarantees of security” would be enough to pull back the troops from the Ukrainian border.
“Putin has put himself in a position where he has to come back with something, without looking really weak,” Menon said. “Given the political realities now, am I confident that a deal is going to happen? No, not at all. I think it’s going to be very, very dicey.”