ArticlesUkraine, Russia and the West: Between conflict and diplomacy

Ukraine, Russia and the West: Between conflict and diplomacy

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As diplomatic talks between Russia and the United States last week did not yield any significant results there seems to be no break-through in sight for Russian-Western relations on any of the aspects on the agendas of the three important meetings held between the sides since the beginning of the year : the US-Russia security talks in Geneva, the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels and the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna. The conflict in Ukraine and the relationship between NATO and Russia and specifically the expansion eastwards of the Alliance dominated both the preparation of these meetings as well as the talks themselves. Russia perceives NATO’s expansion to the east, in former Soviet republics as a major threat and considers that NATO’s existence after the end of the Cold War has no purpose, an aspect that was made clear by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. For the first time Russia’s position was iterated through its proposed draft agreements with the United States and NATO that it had published on the 17th of December. These proposed draft agreements, only highlighted long-term divisions between the two sides. They come in the context of ongoing tensions in Ukraine and the build-up of troops on the border with Ukraine- a move by Russian forces highly criticized within NATO, as well as the search for a united position by European allies to respond to Russia’s actions.

Russia, the United States and the conflict in Ukraine

On the 10th of January 2022, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met with the US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for security talks in Geneva. These talks, came after a series of diplomatic attempts attempt by the two sides to reconcile their approaches to security starting with the joint US-Russia Summit in June, the official conversation between President Biden and President Putin in December as well as the publication of a draft Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees by the Russian Federation on the 17th of December as a basis for these talks. The publication of this document clearly stressed in official form Russia’s demands that the United States should embark on a commitment ‘not to implement security measures that could undermine core security interests of the other Party (Article 1)’. as well as to ‘undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deny accession to the Alliance to the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Article 4).’ The Draft Document also emphasized in Article 4 that: ‘The United States of America shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.’

This document came in the context of heightened tensions on the issue of Ukraine. Throughout the talks in Geneva, the public support for Ukraine by the United States and the insistence on this through the official communication by negotiators and the media set the setting for the expression of incompatibilities between the two countries. As the US side insisted on the ‘No talks on Ukraine without Ukraine’ approach to these discussions,  Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov re-iterated Russia’s position that it does not seek any escalation in Ukraine.

Despite this, these talks-though a step forward by the US in engaging Russia- only signalled the deep divisions between the sides. One example of the incompatibility of positions between the two states immediately after these talks was the proposal in the US Senate by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act on the 12 of January. Thus any of these immediate as well as future responses by Western countries to Russian proposals of this type would affect the fate of Ukraine and the conflict dynamics in the region. This is particularly important as the Russia- NATO Council – though perhaps with bigger stakes for European security than any future talks related to Ukraine – only achieved a similar exchange of what remain at these point incompatible security interests.

The NATO –Russia Council: Proposals and Responses

Prior to the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, Russia had reiterated its request for security guarantees from the West by proposing on the 17th of December a similar document for discussion – ‘Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’. The document stresses in Article 1 the need for both parties to act on the basis of the principles of ‘cooperation, equal and indivisible security’ and ‘not strengthen their security individually, within international organizations, military alliances or coalitions at the expense of the security of other Parties.’ Similarly to the draft treaty with the United States, Russia has raised its concerns about ‘transparency and predictability of military activities’ (Article 2) as well as proposing that: ‘The Russian Federation and all the Parties that were member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as of 27 May 1997, shall not deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other States in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997 (Article 4).’

Articles 6 and 7 also addresses Russia’s main concerns related to NATO’s relationship with Ukraine and specifically NATO’s enlargement stressing that: ‘All member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commit themselves to refrain from any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States. ‘(Article 6) and that: ‘The Parties that are member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization shall not conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States in the Eastern Europe, in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia’(Article 7).

Following these talks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that NATO member states are committed to NATO’s ‘open door policy’ with specific reference to Ukraine. He also stated that despite ‘significant differences between NATO Allies and Russia on these issues’ the talks were a positive sign and pointed to the need to continue this dialogue and the need to ‘discuss concrete ways to increase the transparency of military exercises, to prevent dangerous military incidents, and reduce space and cyber threats.’

Ukraine: Between escalation and diplomacy

Many of the questions that remain at this point centre on the idea of ‘What comes next?’ in terms of Russian-Western diplomacy and especially the conflict in Ukraine. Following a second round of diplomatic talks between Russia and the US last Friday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned Russia of ‘massive consequences’ and a ‘united response by Western allies’ if an invasion of Ukraine would be carried out. What remains to be seen now is whether any of the written answers that the US has pledged to deliver this week following the talks on Friday will have any effect on defusing the tensions between Russia and the West in Ukraine. Whilst the Russia insists on treating the Ukraine issue and the principles of the European Security architecture as one monolith issue, both US and European diplomats have so far sought to treat these issues separately. Whether this approach will reinforce existing divisions within the North Atlantic Treaty organizations will affect not only the conflict dynamics in Ukraine but also Russia’s approach to other conflicts in the region.

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