US, Russia harden stances as tensions escalate over Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) — The failure of high-stakes diplomatic meetings last week to resolve escalating tensions around Ukraine has placed Russia, the United States and their European allies in uncharted territory in the United States. post-Cold War era, posing significant challenges to key players to avoid direct and potentially disastrous confrontation.

Unlike earlier disagreements that have arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current Ukraine crisis and the seemingly insurmountable differences between Washington and Moscow carry real risks of debilitating economic war and military conflict that are exacerbated by the dangers of miscalculations and overreactions.

For the United States and its NATO and European allies, nothing less than a large withdrawal of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops currently deployed near the Ukrainian border will prove that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to negotiate sincerity. For the Russians, the absolute refusal of the West to consider the banning of NATO enlargement and the withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe is proof of its perfidy.

The potential concessions are complicated by the fact that neither Putin nor President Joe Biden wants to be seen as backing down from domestic or foreign audiences.

The refusal so far by either side to back down from what the other sees as unrealistic and maximalist demands has left the outlook for diplomacy in limbo, with the United States and its allies accusing Russia of stoking tensions. tensions for no legitimate reason and the Russians again complaining that the Americans are the aggressors.

Some believe the situation will have to get even worse before the impasse can be resolved.

“The perception gap is so wide that a new and dangerous escalation may be needed to get the parties to open their imaginations and seek agreements,” observed Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council based in Moscow. a comment.

To Western analysts, this seems a situation in which Putin will have to compromise if conflict is to be avoided. Some believe that Putin’s focus on NATO, which has struggled for years with questions about its relevance, may have breathed new life into the alliance.

“This is an extremely uncertain and tense time with no obvious way out unless Putin backs down,” said Jeff Rathke, European expert and former US diplomat, currently president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns University. Hopkins.

President Joe Biden speaks with reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“He’s got himself into a frenzy that’s hard to extricate himself from if he doesn’t get the fundamental overhaul of Europe’s security architecture that he claims he wants.” He showed he was willing to play chicken with the threat of massive military force to achieve that and he certainly caught everyone’s attention, but he didn’t change anyone’s opinion.” Rathke said.

Biden’s US officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Chief Negotiator Wendy Sherman said it is Russia that faces a “tough choice”. Defuse or face punitive sanctions and the opposite of what she wants: an increased NATO presence in Eastern Europe and a better armed Ukraine.

Yet in Russia officials say the shoe is on the other foot. They framed their demands as an “absolute imperative” and argued that the West’s inability to meet them renders talks on other issues moot.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Russia had tried in vain for years to persuade the United States and its allies to start talks on the non-deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, the limits of the games of war and the rules for avoiding dangerously close encounters between the Russians. and Allied warships and aircraft until the United States and NATO express their willingness to discuss these issues this week.

He attributed the change in approach to the US desire to distract from Russia’s key demands, adding that Moscow will focus on non-expanding NATO. And he insisted that it is the United States that formulates the position in the talks while other allies simply march on his orders.

“To be frank, everyone understands that the prospect of reaching an agreement depends on the United States,” Lavrov said. He said anything the United States says about the need to consult allies in negotiations “are just excuses and attempts to drag out the process.”

Thus, the stalemate.

The West’s approach has been to have “as much diplomatic effort as possible to defuse,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow over Russia and Eurasia.

“The problem we have is that the Russians are serious, and they showed us in a bunch of cases, in 2014, in 2008, that they were ready to go to war to get these things, and we are not,” he said. “And that’s the challenge.”

Russia’s tough and intransigent stances have led some to believe that Moscow will only up the ante after it receives what all sides expect to be formal, written refusals from the US and NATO to accede to its demands. .

Indeed, Russia’s chief negotiator in the talks, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, suggested on Thursday that Moscow could respond to the rejections by upping business outside of Europe through the potential deployment of troops to Cuba and Venezuela. The United States called such a suggestion “bragging” and said it would react decisively if it happened.

“The absence of a diplomatic solution logically leads to a further exacerbation of the crisis,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in an online analysis.

Trenin predicted that a set of “military-technical measures” that Putin said Russia would take if the West rejected his demands could include “a wide range of measures…from the deployment of new weapons systems in various regions to much stronger military ties with Belarus. and closer coordination with Chinese partners.

Yet there is a risk that by focusing his anger on NATO, Putin has unwittingly strengthened his hand, especially with its newest members like the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

“For countries that have joined NATO since the Cold War, you can definitely say that NATO is more relevant to them now than it was a year ago or in 2014,” Rathke said. “Anyone who thought NATO was no longer relevant to European security has learned a lesson in recent months. And it will only get worse. »

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Christi C. Elwood