A week of crisis talks among U.S., NATO and Russian diplomats did nothing to ease tensions between the former superpowers or lower the risk of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dire consequences threatened by both sides if the talks ended in failure have swiftly become apparent. The top negotiator among the Russian envoys warned the “security of the whole European continent” is now at risk. U.S. intelligence sources report the Kremlin has deployed provocateurs into Ukraine’s Russian-held separatist regions to stage a “false flag” operation to justify an invasion by the 100,000-strong military force amassed on Ukraine’s borders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his envoys on the three-stop crisis-aversion mission with orders to stand fast on demands for a NATO retreat from the Kremlin’s claimed sphere of influence. The Biden Administration and its NATO allies dismiss those demands as “nonstarters.”
Putin’s negotiators repeated his position at all three negotiating forums: NATO will never admit Ukraine to its membership. It must pull out of 14 member nations the Kremlin considers historical allies. NATO must withdraw forces and weaponry from states bordering Russia.
Biden Administration officials on Friday briefed media about U.S. intelligence reports of Russian operatives setting up a pretext for a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The report of staged attacks on the Russian minority communities in Ukraine’s eastern provinces coincided with a massive cyber-attack on Kyiv government websites.
“We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “The operatives are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described the “false flag” operation as designed to look like an attack on the Russian-speaking minority in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, “again as an excuse (for Russia) to go in.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned there could be a complete rupture in U.S.-Russian relations if threatened sanctions targeting Putin and other influential government and business leaders are imposed.
The shuttle diplomacy aimed at defusing tensions ratcheted up by Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders coincided with an outbreak of political unrest in Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic. The Kazakhstan government’s removal of fuel subsidies caused prices to spike and set off widespread protests that turned violent in the biggest cities. Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called in Russian troops to put down the rioters, the first invocation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization since its inception 30 years ago binding six former Soviet republics — Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — into a NATO-like alliance committed to unified defense.
While Kazakhstan has a more collaborative relationship with Russia than does Ukraine, Tokayev’s resort to calling in Russian forces to put down the rioting with brutal force raised concerns about an expanding role for Russia’s authoritarian regime in turbulent regions of its former empire.
When the weeklong U.S.-Russia diplomatic endeavor concluded Thursday, neither side tried to put a gloss on the failed mission. The top Kremlin envoy to the U.S.-Russia bilateral talks in Geneva, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, left two days of meetings with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with the warning that any future diplomacy to resolve the Ukraine standoff would be contingent on Washington’s answer to its “central question” on its call for a NATO rollback.
“We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees,” Ryabkov said of the Kremlin demand the NATO alliance pull back to its 1997 borders. The current 30-nation alliance expanded over the past quarter century to include 14 countries that were former Soviet republics, allied members of the long-defunct Warsaw Pact or predominantly Slavic Balkan states. Ryabkov said after his eight-hour meeting with Sherman on Monday that the Kremlin would wait for a written reply from the U.S. side on its demands before deciding whether there was any basis for further diplomatic efforts.
“I do not see any reason to sit down again in the coming days, to gather again and start these same discussions,” Ryabkov told Russia’s Interfax news agency upon return from the talks.
Sherman briefed reporters in Brussels after the stalemated talks with Ryabkov to say she laid out the harsh economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if Putin follows through on his threat of a “military-tactical” response unless his concerns about NATO encroachment are addressed. She reiterated that NATO is a defensive alliance and U.S.-Ukraine relations pose no threat to Russia.
“Russia is a big country with vast land territory. They’re a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. They have the largest national military in Europe. Along with the United States, we are the two largest nuclear powers on Earth. They are a powerful country,” Sherman argued. “The fact that they feel threatened by Ukraine, a smaller and still developing democracy, is hard to understand, quite frankly.”
NATO-Russia talks on the second stop of the diplomatic caravan achieved no more progress than the bilateral meetings. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and diplomats from the alliance met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko in Brussels for four hours during which the Russian reiterated the Kremlin’s firm demands.
“This is a principled position, and we will not move from it,” Grushko told reporters after the session he described as “honest, direct, deep and comprehensive,” but one scuttled by great divergence on fundamental questions.
Stoltenberg confirmed there was no movement on the “significant differences” between NATO and the Kremlin after the meeting with Grushko, who was Russia’s envoy to a NATO office for six years before Putin broke off the observer role with the Western alliance.
“There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” Stoltenberg lamented, noting that such a turn to aggression would inflict severe economic pain on Russia.
The third and final stop of the East-West diplomatic effort was Thursday in Vienna, where the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — the only forum involved last week that included Ukraine — pledged unified support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of the Russian threat.
“The drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill,” OSCE’s U.S. representative, Michael Carpenter, said after the European alliance’s meeting with Russian emissaries in Vienna.
Carpenter vowed the United States and NATO “are not going to renegotiate core principles,” listing the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the U.N. Charter and the 1990 Paris Charter, which affirmed the right of sovereign states to make their own decisions about alliances. “Those are sacrosanct. Those are our bedrock,” Carpenter said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hailed OSCE’s moral support of his country’s right to choose its own political and security relationships in the face of “illegal ultimatums and military pressure from Russia.” But OSCE leaders acknowledged the alliance’s limited power to compel Russia to change course.
“It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years,” said Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign minister and current OSCE chair. “For several weeks we have been faced with the prospect of a major military escalation in Eastern Europe.”