Prospects darken as US and Russia prepare to meet over Ukraine

WASHINGTON –
With the fate of Ukraine and the potentially broader post-Cold War European stability at stake, the United States and Russia are conducting critical strategic talks that could shape the future of not only their relationship, but also relations between the United States and its NATO allies. The outlook is bleak.

While the immediacy of the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine will be high on the agenda in a series of high-level meetings that begin on Monday, there is a litany of festering but largely unrelated, ranging from arms control to cybercrime and diplomatic issues. , which Washington and Moscow must overcome if tensions are to subside. And the recent deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan could cast a shadow over the entire exercise.

With great risk and both warning of the dire consequences of failure, both sides have positioned themselves for what will be an almost unprecedented wave of activity in Europe this week. Yet the wide divergence in their open positions does not bode well for any kind of early resolution, and levels of mistrust appear to be higher than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

US officials on Saturday unveiled some details of the administration’s position, which appear to fall far short of Russian demands. Officials said the United States was open to discussions on reducing possible future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and limiting US and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe if Russia is willing. to reverse Ukraine.

But they also said Russia would be hit hard by economic sanctions if it intervened in Ukraine. In addition to direct sanctions against Russian entities, these sanctions could include significant restrictions on products exported from the United States to Russia and products potentially manufactured abroad subject to U.S. jurisdiction.

Russia wants the talks to initially produce formally binding security guarantees for itself with a commitment that NATO will not expand further east and the withdrawal of US troops and weapons from parts of it. Europe. But the United States and its allies say they are non-starters intentionally designed by Moscow to distract and divide. They insist that any Russian military intervention in Ukraine will have “massive consequences” that will significantly disrupt Russia’s economy, even if they have ripple effects on a global scale.

In an effort to forestall Russia’s efforts to sow discord in the West, the Biden administration has done everything possible to stress that neither Ukraine nor Europe in general will be excluded from any discussion of the security of the country. ‘Ukraine or Europe.

Biden administration officials admit that none of these topics can be entirely ignored when senior US and Russian diplomats sit in Geneva on Monday ahead of larger and more inclusive meetings in Brussels and Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday that will explore these questions maybe more in depth.

Yet the mantras of ‘nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine’ and ‘nothing about Europe without Europe’ have become almost cliché in Washington in recent weeks, and senior US officials have gone so far as to say that they expect Russia to lie about the contents of Monday’s press release. meeting to try to stir up divisions.

“We fully expect the Russian side to make public comments after Monday’s meeting that will not reflect the true nature of the discussions that have taken place,” said a senior US official who will participate in the talks. The official was not allowed to speak in public and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official and others urged the allies to view anything Moscow says about the so-called strategic stability talks with “extreme skepticism” and to wait until they are briefed by the American participants before making up their minds. opinion.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of “lighting the gas” and launching a large-scale disinformation campaign aimed at blaming Ukraine, NATO and in particular the United States for the current tensions and undermine western unity. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin is engaged in an all-out war on truth that ignores Russia’s own provocative and destabilizing actions over the past decade.

“Russia seeks to challenge the international system itself and to undo our transatlantic alliance, to erode our unity, to drive democracies to failure,” Blnken said on Friday, reviewing a list of offensive Russian activities ranging from military intervention in Ukraine and Georgia to chemical weapons attacks against Putin’s criticism, electoral interference in the United States and elsewhere, cybercrime and support for dictators.

Despite several conversations between President Joe Biden and Putin, including an in-person meeting last summer, Blinken said such behavior continues, increasingly endangering the post-Second world order. World War.

Thus, the intensified efforts of the United States and its allies to forge common positions on the warnings and “high costs” to Russia if they act against Ukraine. Although expressions of unity emerged, Blinken was not optimistic about the talks’ prospects for success.

“As far as there is progress to be made – and we hope there is – real progress will be very difficult, if not impossible, in an environment of escalation by Russia,” he said. .

Russia, meanwhile, has said it is a threatened victim of Western aggression and wants swift results from the meetings despite what seem like insurmountable differences.

Putin has repeatedly warned that Moscow will have to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West obstructs Russia’s demands, and has asserted that Ukraine’s NATO membership or deployment of The arms of the alliance is a red line for Moscow that it would not allow the West to cross.

“We have nowhere to retreat,” Putin said last month, adding that NATO could deploy missiles in Ukraine that would only take four or five minutes to reach Moscow. “They pushed us to a line that we cannot cross. They pushed it to the point where we just have to tell them; ” Stopped ! “

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who will lead the Russian delegation to the Geneva talks opposite US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said last week that it would quickly become clear whether the talks could be productive.

“It will become clear after the events of next week whether it is possible to make rapid progress, to move quickly on issues that interest us,” he said in an interview with the daily Izvestia.

“So far we’ve heard pretty abstract comments from the United States, NATO and others that some things are okay and some not and the emphasis on dialogue and importance for Russia to defuse. There are very few rational elements in this approach due to the unstoppable and quite intensive military and geopolitical developments of the territories close to the Russian borders by NATO, the emergence of weapons systems there, the activation of ‘exercises.

On Sunday evening, Ryabkov and Sherman will meet at a working dinner to discuss the topics of the next day’s talks, a US official said.

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Christi C. Elwood