International security expert Oleg Shakirov speaks on the prospects of new U.S.-Russia security talks, given that three rounds of recent talks have made little progress.
A series of international talks over Russian proposals on security assurances has come to an end. Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Grushko compared these talks to a triathlon. There have been U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva, Russia-NATO talks in Brussels and talks between Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna. From Moscow’s point of view, these meetings were arranged according to their importance. However, the overall outcome of the negotiations became clear after the first and most important meeting with the U.S. delegation. Joe Biden’s administration has taken Russia’s concerns seriously and is willing to discuss certain issues, but it will not accept Russia’s key proposals concerning NATO’s role in European security. Failure to make progress in negotiations threatens to further exacerbate the situation in Ukraine.
The issues that Russia has put on the agenda have a long history, yet NATO is not in the least concerned about them. In mid-December, Moscow clearly outlined its position with two draft agreements intended for Washington and its allies, and emphasized the urgency of security talks. The U.S. responded to these Russian initiatives promptly.
In addition, the West has demonstrated its own interest in discussing certain issues with Russia. The head of the U.S. delegation, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, stated that the U.S. is open to discussing arms control in Europe and mutual restrictions on the scope of military exercises to ensure their transparency.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also declared his readiness to increase the transparency of military exercises. According to him, the members of the alliance would like to consider cooperation with Russia to prevent dangerous incidents and reduce threats in space and cyberspace. NATO is also eager to improve communication channels with Russia so that both sides could reopen their liaison offices in Moscow and Brussels, respectively.
On the one hand, Russia could find these proposals interesting because the West has clearly decided to cooperate on a number of issues. For example, following the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of such weapons in Europe and other regions. However, his appeal to the West to support this initiative has so far gone unheeded. Now NATO is also pushing for a discussion regarding continental missile restrictions. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Moscow hopes to receive written security assurances from the U.S. and NATO.
On the other hand, the West has already declined Moscow’s key proposals, while Russian negotiators believe it makes no sense to consider certain arrangements on mutual security without discussing these proposals first. NATO’s role in European security has once again become a major sticking point in these recent talks.
Russia demands legally binding guarantees from NATO that its military forces and armaments will not be deployed at Russia’s doorstep. In other words, Russia wants NATO to reverse its post-1997 expansion. These demands stem from the assumption that NATO’s expansion poses a serious threat to Russian security. As Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov put it, “Russia has nowhere else to retreat.” NATO does not share this perspective and, on the contrary, considers it necessary to reaffirm its commitment to its chosen course.
An important element of this course is NATO’s open-door policy for potential new members, which was established in its current form in the mid-1990s. Theoretically, it is possible to imagine various scenarios for NATO to “close its doors.” Over the past two months, its security experts have become more active in their attempts to discuss whether further expansion of the alliance is reasonable given Russia’s current demands. At the same time, NATO members generally perceive the expansion of the alliance as a good thing, and they are certainly not prepared to retreat.
However, Ukraine joining NATO will represent a red line in the eyes of the Russian establishment. Although this is not expected to happen in the near future, Moscow does not want to remain silent as its neighboring state moves in this direction with the support of the West. Instead of waiting for this turning point, Russia has already set forth its demands.
These different approaches of Russia and the U.S. are leading to insurmountable obstacles that might bring an abrupt halt to further negotiations. Ryabkov has already stated that he sees no grounds for the next round of negotiations if the West does not act flexibly with regard to the issues important to Russia. The U.S. considers de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis a prerequisite for further negotiations.
Thus, it is still premature to say the existing tensions can be reduced. What happened outside the meeting rooms indicated that both the West and Russia are trying to raise the stakes.
The U.S. has renewed its discussion of new sanctions in the case of Russian aggression against Ukraine, which Moscow is actively preparing for, according to Washington. Stoltenberg said that NATO would be ready to quickly accept Sweden and Finland if they decide to move closer to NATO membership.
A day after the meeting in Geneva, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that military exercises would be held in the regions bordering Ukraine. The U.S. immediately demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border so that its soldiers could return to their quarters. In response, Lavrov said that such demands would not even be considered. In the interview, Ryabkov neither confirmed nor denied that Russia might deploy its military infrastructure in Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S. responded by promising to act decisively if Russia decides to make these moves.
Even though there has been little progress in recent security talks, the good news is that both sides are eager to use diplomatic means to resolve their differences to de-escalate the situation. As long as this is the case, military exercises and sanctions act as additional leverage. However, if the controversy proves unsolvable, both sides might simply run out of diplomatic options.
The author is a senior expert at the Center for Advanced Governance, and a consultant at the PIR Center.