January 17, 2022
In mid-December 2021, Russia handed the West two draft documents, “Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”[i] and “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees”[ii].
In their phone call of December 30, Presidents Biden and Putin agreed to the sequence of Strategic Stability Dialogue starting on the 9th and 10th in Geneva, a NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting on the 12th, and an OSCE meeting on the 13th. The three sets of talks are now behind.
What was the essence of the Russian proposals? Foreign Minister Lavrov summarized them as “legal guarantees against NATO expanding to the East, legal guarantees against deploying offensive weapons in neighboring territories that pose a threat to Russia’s security, and a principled plan for returning the European security architecture to how it was configured in 1997”.
In the light of remarks to the media by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and American Deputy Secretary Wendy R. Sherman, the NATO/US response can be summarized as follows:
- Certain core Russian proposals are simply non-starters. These include demands to stop admitting any new members to NATO, and to withdraw forces from eastern Allies.
- The NATO Allies are in complete unity that all countries must be able to choose their own foreign policy orientation, that sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacrosanct and must be respected, and that all nations are and must be free to choose their own alliances. The Alliance will not go back to 1997.
- However, the two sides can work on the limits on the size and scope of military exercises, transparency, deconfliction, communications, arms control, and a whole variety of other areas. The US is open to discussing the future of certain missile systems in Europe – along the lines of the now defunct INF Treaty between the U.S. and Russia.
- Diplomacy is the most durable path for building lasting security and escalation does not create optimum conditions for diplomacy.
- If Russia were to invade Ukraine further, there will be significant costs and consequences well beyond what they faced in 2014. From the US perspective, it is very hard to see gas flowing through Nord Stream 2 if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine.
Not much has been said by Western officials since the Geneva and Brussels talks. By contrast, Foreign Minister Lavrov has elaborated upon Russia’s position at the talks and vented pent-up frustration with the West on two occasions: firstly, in an interview with Russia’s Channel One’s “The Great Game” political talk show[iii], and secondly, in remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on Russia’s foreign policy performance in 2021.[iv]
On these two occasions, he stated that the Russian side has made it abundantly clear to the US and NATO that Moscow needs to have an article-by-article response to their proposed documents, sooner than later. Mr. Lavrov said that the Russian proposals constitute a package rather than a menu where the US and NATO can randomly pick the items they desire and guaranteeing to stop NATO’s eastward expansion is the key to the rest.
Mr. Lavrov objected to making the OSCE the main forum for the talks saying that arguments regarding the need to consult with allies and involve all OSCE members in the talks are excuses to drag out the process. He underlined that those Russian proposals were addressed primarily to the main player, the US as well as NATO.
As for the EU being marginalized, he said:
“Speaking about the possibility of holding a separate dialogue with the EU independently from the United States and NATO, one should ask the United States and NATO whether they will allow the EU to take any independent action. We are interested in an independent European Union. We are closely watching the developments unfolding in this association. They are mixed. We see how the EU is concerned that its interests may be ignored. They have been openly acknowledging it since Afghanistan, after the saga with Australian submarines, and after the creation of the so-called AUKUS.
“Nobody will allow the European Union to do anything. The United States has already done all it could for its obedient support group in NATO and the EU to present the alliance as a bulwark of security, including for the EU.”
Actually, Europe’s taking full charge of its security interests is a huge and costly task and NATO largely meets the expectations of its European members despite occasional expressions of dissatisfaction with Washington.
Mr. Lavrov had tough words for Germany. He said, “Germany believes that Ukraine must be supported across the board. What Ukraine wants, it gets. And don’t you want to know what Russia wants? Is Russia less important to Europe than Ukraine?… take Nord Stream 2. Germany is also a US ally. How are Germany’s interests taken into consideration? With moans and groans. Germany has to beg the United States not to impose sanctions.”
Mr. Lavrov was asked why the issues of Ukraine’s “non-admission” to NATO and NATO’s activity in Eastern Europe which have been on the agenda for many years became so paramount at this juncture. He said:
“It’s been an accumulation. I am referring to the period after the 1990s when our Western friends carelessly threw out all their promises not to expand NATO, not to move military infrastructure eastward, not to deploy substantial military forces on the territory of the new members. During the five waves of expansion, NATO has come right to our borders. When we formalized our relations with NATO in 1997, Poland was the only candidate for accession. Look at how the situation has changed since then. Moreover, all these territories are being actively militarized… Exercises in the Black Sea have grown in scale and frequency many times over in recent time… We are faced with unacceptable demands to return our troops to their barracks on our own territory, while the Americans, Canadians and Brits have permanently deployed their troops in the guise of rotation in the Baltic states and other countries in the North of Europe. Bases are being set up in the Black Sea. The Brits are building bases in Ukraine, in the Sea of Azov area…”
Indeed, what has prompted Moscow to challenge the West at this particular juncture? Maybe an accumulation as Mr. Lavrov said. Perhaps, a desire to solemnly declare to the world Russia’s resurgence as a major power. Perhaps domestic challenges in the US, and disharmony in transatlantic relations were seen by Moscow as a window of opportunity to highlight differences in Western ranks and remind the Europeans of the need to accommodate Russia. Failure to move forward in the Minsk process and consequent disenchantment with France and Germany must be a reason. And the US military buildup in northern Aegean coupled with growing US interest in the Black Sea might be the last straw.
Moscow is trying to present this last round of conflict of interests as a test of wills Russia and the US. But there are others, among them the new members of NATO and countries in Russia’s eastern periphery which are affected.
In 2005, President Putin said it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, becoming a genuine tragedy for the Russian people as tens of millions found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory. Last month, he defined the collapse of the Soviet Union as the demise of what he called “historical Russia”. Again, he said that twenty-five million Russians in newly independent countries suddenly found themselves cut off from Russia. He called it “a major humanitarian tragedy”.
The problem is the collapse of the Soviet Union was liberation, independence for peoples who had lived under the Russian yoke for centuries. This is what Sean McMeekin says in his book “The Russian Revolution”:
“Just looking at the map was enough to induce terror in Russia’s neighbors. Relentlessly, as if impelled by some unshakable law of expansion, the tsarist empire had grown by 55 square miles a day – by 20,00 a year – since the seventeenth century…” [v]
There were other empires in which the central state, like Russia, commanded large territories and diverse populations. They also collapsed. The difference was that many of them had territories overseas that were difficult to keep under control to start with, whereas Russia was a huge land empire giving it a sense of invincibility which could not last. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union came almost suddenly as compared to the long decline of other empires, adding to the shock. Nonetheless, today’s Russia is a global power, and yearnings for the past by Russian leaders do not resonate with the countries which were part of “historical Russia” since they have been independent for only three decades.
Looking at the other side of the coin, one may ask whether the West could do a better job of managing the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union better? With the benefit of hindsight, yes. Did the West mismanage developments in Georgia leading to the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Definitely. Could the West handle the Maidan protests and the follow-up better? It probably could. Were the invasion of Iraq and Western participation in Arab Spring proxy wars a disservice to the cause of democracy and Western interests? Yes.
President Putin already knows that despite Brussel’s open-door policy, NATO membership for Ukraine is not in the cards. He must also know that “long-term, legally binding guarantees” from the West meaning a Russian veto on future NATO membership of not only Ukraine but also others, and the rollback of NATO forces in eastern Europe are not realistic expectations. Nonetheless, to his credit, President Putin has kept the West on edge and guessing for more than a month. However, the deployment of a hundred thousand troops on the border with Ukraine comes at a political and financial cost. Foreign Minister Lavrov said that once the Western replies to the Russian proposals, he and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu will report to Russian President Vladimir Putin because they are acting on his direct instructions, that this was his initiative.
Thus, the guessing about President Putin’s next move will continue and so will the prospect of an invasion of Ukraine. And when the Western response to Russia’s treaty proposals reaches Moscow in writing, episode 2 of this thriller would begin. Whether this would signal a Biden-Putin summit in the following episodes remains to be seen.
[v] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, Profile Books Ltd., p.11.