Russia-West Negotiations Start

January 10, 2022

With the New Year and Christmas celebrations behind, the world is back to the realities of the day. And the new year’s first surprise was the turmoil in Kazakhstan.

In their phone call of December 30, Presidents Biden and Putin had agreed to the sequence of Strategic Stability Dialogue starting on the 9th and 10th in Geneva, a NATO-Russia Council conversation on the 12th, and an OSCE meeting on the 13th.

Thus, during the past week, Secretary Blinken and senior officials of the US State Department were engaged in intensive telephone diplomacy with Washington’s allies and friends across the globe to secure a broad front against Russia in Ukraine.  The readout of Deputy Secretary Sherman’s call with Georgian Foreign Minister Zalkaliani said, they “emphasized the need to uphold the right of sovereign nations to choose their own security arrangements and support Georgia and Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of continued Russian aggression and discussed how to enhance peace and security in Europe.”

Russian treaty proposals with the US and NATO keep everyone guessing about President Putin’s intentions and how far he might go. But many agree that this is essentially about reiterating a Russian sphere of influence in Eurasia.

President Putin’s timing for the Russian proposals was well calculated. Because if this is about a conflict of security interests between those advocating democracy and those representing authoritarian rule, one cannot overlook the fact that the former is currently confronted with a multitude of problems.

In remarks to mark one year since January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol, President Biden said, “For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol… This was an armed insurrection… The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election… From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered… They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman…”

But the same day, the Washington Post reported the following, “… At least 163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false claims are running for statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections, according to a Post tally. The list includes 69 candidates for governor in 30 states, as well as 55 candidates for the U.S. Senate, 13 candidates for state attorney general and 18 candidates for secretary of state in places where that person is the state’s top election official…”[i]

In brief, America remains polarized and the battle against Trumpism appears far from over.

As for the other side of the Atlantic, the scars of Brexit need more time to heal. There is a new leadership in Germany. France is heading towards a presidential election. Freedom House says that Hungary and Poland “stand out for their unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade”. Turkey’s relations with the US and the EU are at their lowest point in decades creating a challenge for NATO. US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arab Spring interventions by the West have proved failures.

Moreover, China is close to becoming the world’s number one economic power which also means military power. Russia and China are moving closer to one another. The pandemic poses a greater challenge to democracies than authoritarian states. And there is the need to ensure transatlantic cohesion in the face of Russian demands.

In his New Year’s Speech on January 1, President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö stated the following in the context of recent developments:

“We must, however, be careful about what is being talked about and with whom. Many Europeans have asked, and not for the first time: are we being discussed without us being included? Even though the challenge was presented to the U.S. and NATO, in this situation Europe cannot just listen in. The sovereignty of several Member States, also Sweden and Finland, has been challenged from outside the Union. This makes the EU an involved party. The EU must not settle merely with the role of a technical coordinator of sanctions…” [ii]

But on Saturday, the Washington Post reported the following:

“The way the Russians think, there’s only one venue that matters to them and it’s the bilateral one,” said a U.S. government official specializing in Russian affairs who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. “The rest, from their point of view, is decoration.” [iii]

President Putin already knows that NATO membership for Ukraine is not in the cards. He also knows that “long-term, legally binding guarantees” from the West meaning a Russian veto on future NATO membership of not only Ukraine but also others, is not a realistic expectation. However, the deployment of a hundred thousand troops on the border with Ukraine together with tough demands from the West comes at a political and financial cost. And the mere launching of three-track negotiations with the West would not justify their withdrawal since these negotiations can last for years.

President Putin, in his long essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” argued that the Minsk process gives a real chance to peacefully restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine by coming to an agreement directly with the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR), with Russia, Germany, and France as mediators. But, he said, “this contradicts the entire logic of the anti-Russia project.”

One way out of the current standoff could be some progress in the Minsk process. Because this would enable Moscow to claim putting this process on the right track and registering its views on European security in unmistakable terms. Otherwise, a Russian military intervention would continue to loom and Moscow would continue to enjoy keeping the Western world on edge and guessing for months. After all, a relationship with the US based on “equal rights and mutual respect of interests and positions of each other” has been a recurrent theme of Russian foreign policy.

As for the long-term, Russia’s treaty proposals go beyond Ukraine and extend to Finland, Sweden, and Georgia. Responding to a question on December 24, Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “Russia views Finland’s and Sweden’s traditional policy of non-participation in military alliances as an important stability factor for Northern Europe… It is obvious that this is an issue of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, which is primarily a military structure that focuses on aggressive actions, not defense. We have seen this in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and other places. This would have serious military and political consequences which would require an adequate response on Russia’s part.”

And referring to what he called “the ultimatums Russia gave to the US and NATO”, Finland’s President Niinistö in his afore-mentioned speech said, “And let it be stated once again: Finland’s room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide.”

NATO Foreign Ministers held an extraordinary virtual meeting on Friday, January 7, and stressed that any further aggression against Ukraine would have significant consequences and carry a heavy price for Russia; that NATO allies continue to stand with Ukraine and fully support its sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the principle that all countries have the right to decide on their own path and their alliances. And Secretary General Stoltenberg said, “We are also consulting closely with other key partners, such as Georgia, Moldova, Finland, and Sweden, as well as the European Union.” 

The protests in Kazakhstan led to loss of life among protesters and security forces and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sent 2,600 troops, mostly Russian elite forces to maintain order there.

Kazakhstan declared independence on December 16, 1991. This followed the demise of the Soviet Union. In other words, Kazakhstan declared its independence against Russia. So, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s call for Russian troops to quell the unrest after three decades of independence is tragic, to say the least. Many among his compatriots would see this as a breach of his oath of office. This is the first time the Russian-led alliance was called upon to intervene in a member state. And a sound judgment as to what exactly transpired in Kazakhstan would have to wait for some clarification about the identity of the protesters and their motives.

Moscow probably views the developments in Kazakhstan with mixed feelings. Because, on the one hand, this can be seized as an opportunity to restate Russia’s regional supremacy and stabilizing role, particularly since the deployment of Russian troops was the response to an invitation. But on the other hand, some may see similarities as well as contradictions between Russian involvement in Kazakhstan and in Ukraine, leading to further questions and concerns regarding Moscow’s demand for a new security architecture in Eurasia.

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[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republicans-jan-6-election-lie/2022/01/05/82f4cad4-6cb6-11ec-974b-d1c6de8b26b0_story.html

[ii]  https://www.presidentti.fi/en/speeches/president-of-the-republic-of-finland-sauli-niinistos-new-years-speech-on-1-january-2022/

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-russia-talks-ukraine/2022/01/07/2fb5874e-6ff6-11ec-974b-d1c6de8b26b0_story.html

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