Two weeks ago, the US, NATO, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were all involved in marathon talks with Russian officials in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna aimed at de-escalating the tense situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border after Russia deployed more than 100,000 troops.
The discussions in the three venues helped the parties to understand their respective positions as far as their security concerns were concerned. To cap the hectic diplomatic efforts, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Russian counterpart on 21 January in Geneva in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the Russia-NATO confrontation around Ukraine and the eastern expansion of NATO and the EU.
Moscow considers this forward movement by NATO to its western borders as a serious threat to its national security.
The Geneva meeting demonstrated political will on the part of the US and Russia to reach understandings that would meet Russian security concerns without undermining the commitments and responsibilities of NATO vis-à-vis its member countries on the eastern flank of Europe. Both sides went to the meeting fully aware of the dangers of not following the diplomatic path, at least for now.
After the meeting, Blinken said the US administration did not expect any major breakthrough to happen as a result but believed “we are now on a clear path in terms of understanding each other’s positions.”
In a major concession to the Russians, he said the US would submit its own security proposals in response to the Russian proposals already submitted to NATO. He said that the two sides planned to meet again. Asked by a US media network if US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin were planning another virtual summit meeting, he replied that such an option could be considered.
He added that the US would share with Russia a response to the concerns that it had raised and put some ideas on the table for consideration. After this, the nature of the next step would be decided.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on the same day that “we have been clear about what we are not negotiating on, which is the sovereignty of Ukraine, which is the question that is continuously raised about Ukraine’s right to pursue joining NATO, and that it is up to NATO countries to make that decision.”
For his part, the Russian foreign minister warned after his meeting with Blinken that “further ignoring the legitimate concerns of the Russian Federation… will have the most serious consequences.” He said that the Russian delegation to the Geneva meeting had heard “some repetition of arguments about the freedom to choose alliances… But the freedom to choose alliances is determined by the need not to take any steps that will strengthen the security of one state to the detriment of the security of other states.”
Last December, the Kremlin requested a written response to its security demands, among which was not accepting Ukraine as a member of NATO.
Biden repeated on 20 January that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would trigger crippling sanctions against Russia. US and European officials are trying to figure out whether Putin will order an invasion of Ukraine or not. They have come forward with three possible scenarios.
The first is official recognition of the breakaway Donbas region of Ukraine. The second is a limited military incursion, and the third is the nightmarish scenario of a full Russian invasion and the encirclement of the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
The consequences of the third scenario, both in the short and long term, are too serious and alarming to predict. It is doubtful that anyone would be able to muster control over the chain reactions that would be set in motion by Russian forces taking over Ukraine.
Those who know Putin tend to believe that he will not risk a major and sustained confrontation with the US and Europe by ordering a massive invasion of Ukraine. His ultimate objective is to halt the eastward expansion of NATO towards the borders of Russia. When Biden said on 9 January that it was “not likely” that Ukraine would be admitted to NATO in the near term, the guess was that this would contribute to a de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis and favour the search for a diplomatic breakthrough in the weeks to come.
Invading Ukraine would be an unprecedented act in Europe since the Second World War ended in 1945. Biden was right when he said last week that such an invasion would be the “most consequential thing that has happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War II.”
I tend to believe that both the US and Russia are eager to reach a compromise solution that would guarantee the security of Russia, the sovereignty of Ukraine, and the freedom of movement of NATO forces within its member countries. This should be done without posing an immediate threat to Russian security interests and through measures agreed between Moscow and NATO that would ensure transparency and on the basis of reciprocity.
In the meantime, US Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has introduced a bill called the “Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act” listing sanctions that would be slapped on Russia if its forces cross the Ukrainian border. The bill includes severe economic and financial measures as well as military and security dimensions.
It lists, among other things, the use of US Department of Defence lease authority and its Special Defence Acquisition Fund to support Ukraine militarily and increased support for the US-Ukraine military exchange programme. It also includes providing Ukraine with additional loans to support its defensive capabilities and public disclosure of allegedly ill-gotten assets belonging to Putin and members of his inner circle.
The Biden administration supports the bill, and the US and some member countries of NATO are also gearing up for a sustained Ukrainian insurgency in case Russia invades Ukraine. Some countries have already sent training personnel to Ukraine, while providing the Ukrainian military with anti-tank missiles and portable surface-to-air missiles, small arms, and artillery ammunition.
US officials have told their European counterparts that the CIA (covertly) and the Pentagon (overtly) would both seek to help any Ukrainian insurgency. Furthermore, the US administration has cleared the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia to send US-made weapons to Ukraine such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger air-defence systems. On 19 January, the US administration announced an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine.
If war erupts in Eastern Europe, no power, great or small, will be able to control the ways in which it would spin out and at what cost to the parties concerned. Diplomacy is a much better alternative.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.