January 22, 2022
I had concluded an earlier post on the Ukraine crisis with the following:
“In Russia, President Putin is at the helm, steering a steady course.
“In the West, the picture is more complicated. What is clear is that 2022 will be a tough year for Western diplomacy.”[i]
Russia, having presented the US and NATO with treaty proposals in mid-December has kept the West on edge and guessing about President Putin’s intentions and how far he might go. Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov emphasized again that for Russia the matter of priority is securing watertight, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees that Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations will not join NATO. He added that as an alternative, the US could take a unilateral commitment in a legally binding form that it will never vote for accepting Ukraine and other countries to NATO. In other words, a US veto on future NATO expansion, more than a non-starter. He also said, “We do not intend to take any aggressive actions. We will not attack, raid or invade Ukraine.”
In his joint press conference with Secretary Blinken, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said, “This conflict can be solved only when the last Russian soldier leaves some parts of Luhansk and Donetsk region and Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.” Unfortunately for Ukraine, this is not going to happen. And whether or not his stand takes the Minsk process into dean end remains to be seen, because swift progress in the Normandy format could be one way of defusing the current standoff.
During the past weeks, Washington has remained engaged in intense telephone diplomacy to ensure as broad a united front against Russia as possible, as confirmed by the call between Secretary of State Blinken and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah.[ii]
And Secretary Blinken and his colleagues consistently underlined that there are two paths forward, de-escalation and diplomatic engagement or conflict. They have taken care to highlight Western unity and the potential cost to Russia of another invasion of Ukraine. “Nothing about Europe without Europe” was their slogan.
On Wednesday, President Biden held a press conference marking his first year in office. His remarks on the Ukraine crisis disappointed many, probably among them the US State Department.
Referring to Russia, he said, “… it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.” Following a push back by Ukrainian President Zelensky, Mr. Biden said that any move by Russian units across the Ukrainian border would be considered an invasion.
Secretary of State Blinken and senior officials have steadfastly stressed the right of countries to choose or change the security arrangements that they have, including alliances. Yet Mr. Biden said, “… the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there, and whether or not the major allies in the West would vote to bring Ukraine in right now.” I too have said that President Putin already knows Ukraine’s NATO membership is not in the cards. But President Biden did not have to confirm this in an open statement.
Secretary Blinken has taken every opportunity to underline Western solidarity in the face of the Russian military buildup. But President Biden said, “… it’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page. And that’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens — the degree to which they’re able to go.”
That there are differences in the Western camp is no secret. For example, President Macron, probably still upset over AUKUS and EU’s exclusion from US/NATO-Russia talks, recently said “… the EU must have a dialogue with Russia. To have a dialogue doesn’t mean to concede – dialogue means above all to take stock of disagreements…” He also spoke of a French proposal to build a new security and stability order, which must first be approved among Europeans, then shared with allies in NATO, and then submitted to negotiation with Russia. “The French proposal intends to create together a European power of the future … an independent Europe that has given itself the means to decide its own future and not rely on the decisions of other major powers,” he said. Some, in France, saw his words as part of his election campaign.
The reality is 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.
President Biden also said, “… We’re going to — I’ve already shipped over $600 million worth of sophisticated equipment, defensive equipment to the Ukrainians.” And the next day during her press conference with Secretary Blinken, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, responding to a question said, “… you may be aware of the fact that Germany has a special tradition of showing great restraint when it comes to exporting weapons and arms to crisis areas.”
In brief, the West is not as united as Secretary Blinken is trying to project.
While in Berlin Secretary Blinken delivered a speech titled “The Stakes of Russian Aggression for Ukraine and Beyond” at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences where he spoke of the governing principles of international peace and security that all have a stake in defending. He said, “Those principles, established in the wake of two world wars and a cold war, reject the right of one country to change the borders of another by force; to dictate to another the policies it pursues or the choices it makes, including with whom to associate; or to exert a sphere of influence that would subjugate sovereign neighbors to its will.”
It was a fine speech. However, the invasion of Iraq, interventions in Libya, Syria, and support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen cast a long shadow over his remarks. In other words, global leadership needs to be supported by moral authority. And for major powers, this can only be accomplished by rising above narrow interests and giving proof of their peace-making capacity which remains a challenge for both Washington and Moscow. Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Congressional Democrats urged President Biden to overhaul his counterterrorism strategy and targeting criteria for drone strikes, citing grave concerns about “repeated civilian casualties arising from secretive and unaccountable lethal operations.” And on Friday, Save the Children reported that three children and more than 60 adults were killed and at least 100 others injured in airstrikes in Yemen.
Considering the current tensions, the Blinken-Lavrov meeting in Geneva was a positive step. The former described the discussions as “frank and substantive”. The latter said the talks were “constructive and useful”.
As Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Blinken met in Geneva, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Russia’s security demands to the US and NATO include the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from NATO member states Bulgaria. My impression has been that the US buildup in northern Greece and growing interest in the Black Sea might have been the last straw convincing Moscow that it is time to act.
I had concluded my last post with the following:
“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.”
It now seems that a Biden-Putin summit is a possibility. But the bigger question is how long President Putin will keep such a big force in combat readiness at the Ukrainian border particularly in view of the denials by Russian diplomats including Mr. Lavrov. In his press conference last week Mr. Biden said, “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.” Who knows? Maybe all he has to do is to ask, “Would the US and NATO have responded to our demands so soon and in writing had Russia had we not amassed a hundred thousand troops on the border to underline the urgency of our concerns?”
I watched Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Blinken deliver remarks and answer questions by the media after their bilateral. Both held their ground. Both used some tough language but never crossed the line. They agreed to meet again. And both managed to strike a positive note. Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Blinken represent two major powers engaged in strategic competition and at present on the brink of a conflict. As a retired diplomat, I respect them.
Then I turn to Turkey and to our quarrels, our polarization, the winner-take-all mentality, lack of tolerance, lack of empathy, lack of dialogue, and the foul language of our domestic politics only to see that there is so little to respect.