US/NATO Talks with Russia, Episode 2 Begins

January 31, 2022

On January 26, the US and NATO delivered their written responses to Russia’s security demands in Eurasia. A day later, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the media that the responses offer grounds for serious talks only on matters of secondary importance; that there is no positive response to the main issue which is continued NATO enlargement towards the east and the deployment of strike weapons that can pose a threat to Russian territory.

He referred to the freedom of states to choose military alliances as well as the obligation not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states as reflected in 1999 Istanbul and the 2010 Astana Declarations. “In the early 1990s, or more precisely in 1990, when Germany was reunified and the issue of European security was raised, they solemnly promised that NATO would not expand even an inch eastward beyond the Oder River,” he said.[i]

In a more recent interview, he said that Russia’s initial assessment of their response has been communicated to the West; that this response is unsatisfactory with regard to the main issue, the indivisibility of security; and the constructive elements on secondary issues were, in fact, borrowed from Russia’s recent initiatives. If efforts to come to terms on mutually acceptable principles of European security were to fail, Russia would then take response measures which could come in all shapes and sizes as President Putin had declared. Mr. Lavrov also said, “As for the threats of imposing sanctions, the Americans were told, including during the presidential meeting, that… completely cutting off Russia from the West-controlled financial and economic systems, will be equivalent to severing relations.” [ii]

Russian Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department Alexey Zaitsev, and Russia’s Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov denied the reports of an invasion and emphasized that the Kremlin has no plans to carry out such an attack.

In mid-January, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had suggested that Moscow couldn’t exclude dispatching “military infrastructure” to Venezuela or Cuba if tensions with Washington over Ukraine were to continue. On January 20 and 24, President Putin had phone calls with President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro and President of Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez of Cuba. The Kremlin readouts of both calls underlined strong relationships.

In brief, Moscow is dissatisfied with the written responses by the US and NATO, mulling its next move, but repeatedly denies that it will invade Ukraine.

As for the US side, senior officials of the Departments of State and Defense remain engaged with allied countries and continue to highlight the need for de-escalation and diplomacy. And they reiterate that the Western response to a Russian invasion will be unprecedented.

On January 27, Department of State Spokesman Ned Price was asked the following question: “Russian officials have warned that Moscow could deploy troops to Cuba and Venezuela if the U.S. and NATO insist on the crisis of Ukraine. Is the U.S. concerned about it? Have you seen any movement in that regard?” He said: “Look, we are not going to respond to bluster. If we do see any movement in that direction, we will respond swiftly and decisively.”

The same day he issued a statement which said, “The United States is troubled by continuing reports of abductions and arbitrary detentions carried out by authorities in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya, including dozens of reported abductions and arbitrary detentions in recent weeks targeting the relatives of Chechen human rights defenders and dissidents…”

During the past week, internal discussions in the West focused on Germany and Nord Stream. When asked whether Germany was prepared to accept the high cost of putting Nord Stream 2 on the line, or blocking Russia from the international banking system, Chancellor Scholz responded that the consequences had to be weighed. “Nobody should have the illusion that there is some measure that has no consequences for us,” he said.

But last Thursday, during the debate in the German Bundestag, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, “We have made it quite clear, and in no uncertain terms, that renewed military action against Ukraine would have huge consequences for Russia… If there is renewed aggression, we have a range of possible responses at our disposal, including Nord Stream 2…” [iii]

China had denied earlier US media reports about President Xi Jinping asking President Vladimir Putin to delay invading Ukraine because of the Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing in February.

On January 27, Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a phone call with Secretary Blinken, at the latter’s request. According to Beijing’s readout of the call, on the question of Ukraine, Wang Yi emphasized the need to implement the Minsk agreement urgently. He also stressed, echoing the Russian view, that the security of one country should not be at the expense of the security of others, and regional security should not be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs. He said that Russia’s legitimate security concerns should be addressed seriously.

Moreover, on January 27, 2022, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, in response to a question said, “I want to stress that there is no ceiling to China-Russia mutual trust, no forbidden zone in our strategic cooperation and no limit on how far our long-standing friendship can go… China is ready to work with Russia to press ahead along the course charted by the two heads of state, fully unleash the huge potential and advantage in our cooperation and inject more stability and positive energy in the turbulent and changing world.” [iv]

In the meantime, North Korea fires its longest-range missile since 2017 underlining once again the need for a multilateral coalition to enforce non-proliferation. Because the alternative would be welcoming Pyongyang to the nuclear club.

As for Ukraine, President Zelensky noted that fueling alarm causes no less economic losses to Ukraine than direct military action. According to the media, “I’m the President of Ukraine, I’m based here, and I think I know the details deeper than any other President,” he said. “We don’t have any misunderstandings with President Biden. I just deeply understand what is going on in my country just as he understands perfectly well what’s going on in the United States.”

“I’m not being critical of President Biden,” Mr. Zelensky added.

But he criticized the West for waiting to impose more damaging sanctions on Russia; he criticized the US, Britain, and Australia for withdrawing some embassy staff and families, and he expressed disappointment with his Western counterparts for creating panic with their repeated suggestions of an imminent Russian invasion.

To sum up,

  • Despite declarations of unity, there are cracks in Western camp. The Trump presidency had raised questions in Europe about America’s global leadership. The prospect of Mr. Trump’s or Trumpism’s return to the White House continues to haunt the EU.   Withdrawal from Afghanistan, AUKUS have compounded European worries. Thus, the EU, probably never to emerge as a united military power, remains dependent of the US but is more inclined to seek common ground with Russia.
  • The Western leaders/government do not always appear to be on the same page with Kyiv.
  • By contrast, Russia and China are closing ranks. China is supportive of Russia’s security demands.
  • If it were to continue, the Ukraine crisis could impede Washington’s long-sought pivot to Asia.
  • To find a way out of the crisis, Western pressure on Kyiv to be more forthcoming in the Normandy format talks could be increasing, adding to Kyiv’s frustration.
  • A full-scale invasion of Ukraine is mentioned as a possibility but this would prove immensely costly and would bury forever President Putin’s theory of Russians and Ukrainians being one people.
  • Would the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukraine border at some point mean a defeat for President Putin? Not really. Having kept the West on edge, confused, and guessing for months, thus underlining Russia’s resurgence as a global power three decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, putting fissures in the Western camp on display, and securing China’s support are not insignificant accomplishments.

Where does Turkey stand?

In a recent Kadir Has University survey, “Turkey Trends 2021”, participants were asked, “Do you think the following countries pose a threat to Turkey?[v] The percentage of those who said “yes” for the US was 56.1%.  The figure was 40.7% for Russia, 37.3% for China, 42.4% for Greece, 32.2% for Germany, 43.7% for France, 44.4% for the UK, 60.5% for Israel and 60.9% for Armenia.

The responses to the question, “Are the following countries Turkey’s ally and/or friend?” were just as interesting. Azerbaijan topped the list with a 57.4% “yes” response. The figure was 30.2% for Germany, 15.7% for the US, 22.2% for Russia, 13.1% for Iran, 11.2 for France, 10.9 for the UK, and 9.9% for Greece. These figures in this category were generally low.

As for Turkey’s membership in NATO, the question was, “Under the current national and international conditions, would you think that NATO membership is important/vital for Turkey?” 58% Found it important, 11.6% as unimportant, and 30.4% said “Neither important nor unimportant”.

Finally, support for Turkey’s accession to the EU stood at 58.4%.

This is a bleak picture for Turkey’s relations with the West, reflecting the failure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s “precious loneliness” policy and our steep democratic decline. This failed policy, the obstacles raised before Turkey in the now-defunct EU accession process, European countries siding with Greece on Aegean and Cyprus questions no matter what, and Washington’s support for the PYD/YPG have all played a role in Turkish people’s disillusionment not only with Turkey traditional allies and friends, but also with major powers and regional countries.

At present, there are reports of a visit by President Isaac Herzog to Turkey and the opening of a new page. Although this is a welcome development one cannot but ask, “what has changed?” Israel has not. Turkey has not. But four Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel. So, could it be that it finally dawned upon the Turkish government that neither its “precious loneliness”, nor its aggressive rhetoric is sustainable, that both have proved self-defeating? One can only say better late than never. But unfortunately, it takes no time to destroy trust, but years and years to rebuild it.

For decades Ankara’s relations with Moscow were on a steady course. Our misguided involvement in the Syrian conflict, our downing of a Russian fighter aircraft in 2015, our purchase of S-400 air defense systems essentially to repair the relationship, and the consequent deterioration of our relations with Washington have put Turkey in a narrow alley between Russia and the US. Needless to add, Russia is the biggest supplier of natural gas to Turkey, the biggest source of Turkey’s tourism revenues, and an important export market for Turkey’s agricultural sector. Turkish construction companies are active in Russia.

Last week, President Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He advocated de-escalation as well as dialogue to address Russia’s security concerns. He reiterated Turkey’s attachment to its NATO commitments. Was Ankara fully involved in the intensive diplomatic exchanges between NATO allies during the past weeks? Hard to say.

Hopefully, reason would prevail on all sides. Because, if the Ukraine crisis were to take a turn for the worse, Ankara would be faced with a tough balancing act between Russia and the US. And the Washington dimension of such an act might prove more of a challenge because President Putin would do his very best to maintain a good relationship with Ankara which he sees as a long-term investment in his Eurasian security project. One cannot but admit that, to his credit, he has seized an opportunity and just would not let it slip away. His positive response to an invitation to visit Turkey in the near future only confirms this. One should not be entirely surprised even if he were to allow Ankara to somehow claim that it is playing the role of a mediator or facilitator between Kyiv and Moscow.

Having said all that, I should also admit that the “Turkey Trends 2021” survey’s finding of a 50.6% approval rate of government’s foreign policy, up from 28.5% in 2019, leaves me wondering. Probably, that figure should keep the opposition wondering too.

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[i] https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/1796041/

[ii] https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/1796330/

[iii] https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/-/2508754

[iv]https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202201/t20220127_10635310.html

[v] https://khas.edu.tr/sites/khas.edu.tr/files/inline-files/turkeytrends-web-press.pdf

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