With Russian guns pointed at Ukraine, West and Moscow dive into talks

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GENEVA — U.S., European, and NATO officials are adamant the intense week of diplomatic meetings with Russia is a dialogue, not a negotiation.

But with upwards of 100,000 Russian soldiers quite literally pointing guns at Ukraine, with tanks and other heavy weaponry massed on the border, and President Vladimir Putin openly threatening military action if his demands for security guarantees are not met, this week’s talks have all the markings of a hostage standoff.

Ahead of the talks, which officially start Monday morning in Geneva before shifting to Brussels and Vienna, Western officials stressed during a flurry of background briefings, news conferences and other preparatory public pronouncements that Moscow must also be willing to hear and address their complaints. These include Russia’s previous military incursions in Ukraine and in Georgia, as well as interference in elections (a point of anger among the Americans) and use of chemical weapons (a special priority for the British after the 2018 assassination attempt of a former spy in Salisbury, England).

Throughout all of this, however, Western officials have been unable to explain why — if these meetings are a conversation and not a life-or-death bargaining session — they did not insist Putin first pull his troops and armor back to garrison before granting the Kremlin a series of high-profile platforms on which to air its grievances.

Diplomats, officials and analysts who track Russia closely say it is impossible to deny the obvious: The West has allowed Putin to set the table for the meetings this week, and that without his menacing military build-up, none of these talks would be happening.

“Sometimes when someone takes a hostage, you have to negotiate,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, who follows Russia and Ukraine, including security and arms control issues.

The problem — and, for Ukraine, the grave danger — is that if the talks this week are, in fact, a brokering session, there are far more points viewed as non-negotiable than there are areas of potential compromise, leaving little landing zone for a deal.

What’s on the table — and what’s not

Putin will not discuss his invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, which the West still views as a violation of international law that must be reversed. Putin also has never admitted, and won’t concede now, that active-duty Russian military personnel are operating in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, despite ample evidence to the contrary, including a recent Russian court ruling that discussed contracts for supplying food to Russian forces.

The U.S. and its NATO allies, meanwhile, have already said they will not accede to Russia’s demands that the U.S. remove troops and weapons from Eastern European countries that joined the alliance after 1997. They have already rejected a demand for the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, and also flatly ruled out Moscow’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO.

In recent days, U.S. officials have identified just two areas in which they see the potential for fruitful discussions: on curtailing missile deployments and on scaling back military exercises.

Russia has long complained about existing U.S. “Aegis Ashore” missile defense capabilities based in southern Romania and has recently voiced concerns that Washington would seek to base missiles in Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO have previously dismissed the concerns about the missile interceptors in Deveselu, Romania, saying they were installed to protect against threats from Iran or elsewhere outside the Euro-Atlantic area. A second Aegis Ashore installation in the town of Redzikowo, in northern Poland, is nearly complete and projected to be operational by the end of this year.

The Poland site, not far from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, is likely of even greater concern to the Kremlin.

But even as the Russian delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, arrived in Geneva on Sunday afternoon for the first informal meeting — a bilateral discussion with the U.S. — there were signs Moscow was unimpressed by the comments from Washington and not optimistic about the prospect of any deal.

“We are not going there with an outstretched hand, we are going with a clearly formulated task that must be solved on the terms that we have formulated. That’s all,” Ryabkov told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

“If we walk in circles and repeat the same thing, if we do not see the slightest signs of readiness from the other side to take into account our priorities, to react to them in a constructive way, then the dialogue will become pointless,” Ryabkov said.

In Geneva, the U.S. delegation will be led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, one of Washington’s most seasoned diplomats and a familiar figure in Moscow. Sherman was the chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal under former President Barack Obama, and under former President Bill Clinton, she was the policy coordinator for North Korea and led negotiations with Pyongyang over its nuclear program.

Overall, Russia’s recent litany of requests, put forward last month as a draft “treaty,” would fundamentally rewrite the security architecture of modern Europe. And the far-reaching nature of the document — Kremlin critics would say vastly over-reaching — reflect just how little Putin has to lose in the current round of discussions.

Virtually any concession Putin might be granted would amount to something for nothing for the Russian leader, who has been in power since the end of 1999, and recently oversaw a rewriting of his country’s constitution to allow him to stay in office until 2036.

Such concessions include even the willingness of Western powers to entertain some of his more outlandish claims in recent weeks, such as the fact Ukraine poses a security threat to Russia, or, as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently claimed, that U.S. mercenaries were preparing a provocation using chemical weapons in Donbass.

Given the inevitably high cost to Russia of an invasion of Ukraine — in casualties, which could run to the tens of thousands, and in economic and political sanctions imposed by the West — there is some hope in Western capitals that Putin might be willing to back off his threats in favor of negotiations that keep Russia at the center of the geopolitical stage.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to lower expectations for this week’s talks, and he acknowledged the extortionary nature of the current situation.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any breakthroughs in the coming — in the coming week,” Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” show. Blinken reiterated the need for two-way discussions and for Russia to hear the West. “We’re going to listen to Russia’s concerns,” he said. “They’re going to have to listen to our concerns.”

But Blinken said he saw limited opportunity for major advancements, either in Geneva or during a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council at alliance headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. The meeting with allies will be followed by a broader meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday, including Ukraine.

“It’s hard to see making actual progress, as opposed to talking, in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head,” Blinken said. “So, if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation, Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses to Ukraine.”

Fighting for a seat at the table

While Moscow clearly prefers to speak directly to Washington, which it views as pulling puppet strings at NATO, in recent days, Blinken and other U.S. officials have stressed repeatedly that they will not allow Russia to use the bilateral talks in Geneva to make decisions that impact European allies or for that matter, Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.

Publicly, NATO allies are working to display unshakable unity in their posture toward Russia, as they did on Friday following a videoconference of allied foreign ministers.

“Today’s meeting demonstrated once again NATO’s unity and cohesion,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg proclaimed at a news conference, adding that allies were also united in imposing steep costs on Russia if it attacks Ukraine.

“We need to be prepared for that the talks break down and that diplomacy will fail,” he said. “And that’s exactly why we are sending a very clear message to Russia that if they once again decide to use military force against a neighbor, then there will be severe consequences, a high price to pay. Economic sanctions, financial sanctions, political sanctions.”

Privately, however, some European officials have voiced growing misgivings about the Biden administration’s approach toward Moscow. And some EU officials, including the foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, have loudly demanded that Brussels must have a central role in any discussions with serious repercussions for European security.

Some European diplomats said Putin’s recent actions had led to a reassessment of U.S. President Joe Biden’s summit with Putin in Geneva in June, and that the meeting was now largely regarded as a failure — to be counted as yet another misstep, along with the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a diplomatic spat with France over security policy in the Indo-Pacific that prompted Paris to recall its ambassador from Washington for the first time ever last year.

“It first and foremost handed a win to Putin from the get-go,” one EU diplomat said. “The meeting itself signaled irrelevance for Europe and EU member states.”

Noting the disregard for France, combined with an initial instinct by the U.S. to exclude Eastern European allies from the discussions about Russia, the diplomat said: “How realistic is the U.S. as a partner and friend across the Atlantic? By engaging with Putin without making clear the steep cost of transgressing the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, Biden handed Putin the option of formulating his own terms of engagement.”

The diplomat added: “The meeting increased the feeling in European — and especially Eastern European — countries as fly-over states whose fate is decided on by Washington and Moscow.”

A second EU diplomat applauded the effort to maintain a seat for the EU in any negotiations on European security. “On this one, I’m fully with Borrell,” the second diplomat said. “Now it’s for NATO and OSCE but we, as EU, we need to sit at the table. We have to be relevant in these talks.”

Other EU diplomats said there was hope the NATO-Russia meeting would be the first of several sessions, leading to renewed dialogue and forestalling any escalation of military conflict in Ukraine.

“The fact that the Russian Federation wants to change the security architecture is of course concerning,” a third diplomat said. “But there are multiple tracks and so we need to start talking, talking and talking — again and again,” the third diplomat said. “Too early to speculate on the outcome: the process is paramount for now.”

After Moscow’s Ryabkov and Washington’s Sherman met Sunday night for an informal dinner, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated that the U.S. would not negotiate on behalf of European allies in their absence.

“The United States will discuss certain bilateral issues with Russia,” the State Department said in a statement, “but will not discuss European security without our European Allies and partners. The Deputy Secretary underscored that discussion of certain subjects would be reserved for the NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels on January 12 and the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna on January 13.”

Hitting Russia where it hurts

If Russia has a gun to Ukraine’s head, the West, in its way, has sought to point its own soft-power weaponry back at Moscow — reiterating repeatedly that there will be high-impact economic sanctions. These likely included measures intended to cut Russia’s access to the global financial system.

A fourth EU diplomat said the West would go further than ever before to target not just wealthy Russian figures closely connected to Putin, but also their families — in an effort to severely limit travel to Europe, where Russians often love to spend holidays and shop. While such sanctions might be difficult to defend in court, the diplomat said EU officials were prepared to make the process of fighting the levies as lengthy and difficult as possible.

Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, lashed out at the renewed threats of sanctions ahead of the diplomatic meetings. “They are trying different ways to break us,” she said on a popular TV talk show. “They are trying to break our spirit.”

Given the high premium Putin typically puts on being in direct dialogue with Washington, some diplomats and officials said the Biden administration missed an opportunity by not demanding at least a limited pull-back of Russian forces before sitting down at the table with the Kremlin.

Monday’s meeting in Geneva is technically an extraordinary session of the “Strategic Stability Dialogue,” which was an outgrowth of the Biden-Putin summit in June.

A senior U.S. State Department official noted that two sessions were held, on July 28 and September 30, and that the U.S. and Russia had agreed to create two working groups, one on “Principles and Objectives for Future Arms Control” and the other on “Capabilities and Actions with Strategic Effects.”

But despite U.S. requests, Russia refused to hold another meeting before the end of 2021, the senior official said, even as the Kremlin massed troops on the border with Ukraine.

Officials from the U.S. and other allied NATO countries, however, insisted Putin was not being rewarded with this week’s meetings, even though Stoltenberg acknowledged Russia has continued to amass forces on the border.

“The Russian military build-up continues,” he said Friday. “With tens of thousands of combat troops and heavy capabilities as well as threatening rhetoric and a track record of using force against neighbors, the risk of conflict is real.”

Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer and Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.

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