Defusing the Ukraine crisis

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 22 Feb 2022

Proposals for a new European security architecture should be on the table in any serious talks to solve the Ukraine crisis, writes Hussein Haridy

The unexpected has happened. For the past few weeks the world has been hoping that the path of diplomacy would solve the Ukraine crisis and would bear fruit despite the military buildup along the Russian-Ukraine border and the growing military assistance from the NATO countries to the Ukrainian military.

One important objective behind the diplomatic efforts has been to avoid escalating the situation in Ukraine to an all-out war pitting Russian forces against the Ukrainian military.

However, the world was caught by surprise on 19 February when Russian President Vladimir Putin presided from a command centre in the Kremlin over the test launch of three ballistic and cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Russian president was accompanied by President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

The ballistic-missile tests were meant to show the strength of the Russian triad system. One was sea-launched, another air-launched, and the third land-based. The sea-based weapon tested is known as the Zircon and is capable of avoiding naval defences. It is expected to be operational before the end of 2022.

By test-launching these three ballistic missiles, Moscow wants to dissuade the US and NATO from further escalating the situation in Ukraine, in addition to exerting more pressure on the Biden administration to heed Russian warnings concerning the need to respect Russia’s red lines, as conveyed in writing last December, foremost among them guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO.

It was also no coincidence that the tests were programmed to take place on the same day that US Vice-President Kamala Harris was scheduled to address the Munich Security Conference in Germany. In her remarks there on 19 February, Harris accused Russia of spreading “disinformation, lies and propaganda,” describing Russia’s actions as part of the “playbook of Russian aggression.”

These were the same accusations that US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had levelled at Moscow on 17 and 18 February, the latter before a second session of the UN Security Council dealing with the crisis in the Ukraine in less than a month. The first time was on 31 January. 

The Russian tests took place in the context of heightened tensions between the US and Russia, with the Biden administration, fully supported by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, expecting an imminent Russian invasion “next week,” meaning the week starting on 21 February.

On 18 February, Biden told reporters that “as of this moment I am convinced that he [Putin] has made the decision [to invade Ukraine].” He added that according to intelligence information, the Russian offensive would target Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

In the meantime, Biden said that Blinken would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 24 February in Europe, making it clear that the meeting would be cancelled if the invasion of Ukraine took place. A White House official told the New York Times on 19 February that Biden’s remarks were based on the “assessment of the intelligence community.”

Travelling to Munich to participate in the Munich Security Conference on 19 February, Johnson echoed the same message that Biden had delivered one day earlier. The “allies need to speak with one voice to stress to President Putin the high price he will pay for any Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

It is worth noting that both US and British officials have contradicted Russian announcements of troop withdrawals along the Ukrainian border after military exercises. These announcements were made by the Russian Ministry of Defence on 15 and 17 February.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss penned an article in the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph, in which she wrote that the West should not feel secure when Russia pretends that some of its forces are going back to their barracks and claiming that Russian reinforcements have not stopped coming. In a rare communique, chief of intelligence at the UK Ministry of Defence

Jim Hockenhull said that the Russians were sending in reinforcements.

A senior US official talking to reporters on 16 February denied that the Russians had begun withdrawing some of their forces, stressing that “we know now that this is not true.”

In the same vein, speaking before a meeting of NATO defence ministers on 16 February Stoltenberg brought up the question of the withdrawal of Russian military units and emphatically denied that Russian forces had started a pullback. He added that “in fact, [Russia] appears to be adding to its forces.”

 What was surprising in his remarks, however, contradicting later statements by Biden, Harris, and Johnson, was Stoltenberg’s belief that Putin “wants to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis”.

While the US and Britain are hardening their positions vis-à-vis Moscow, at least in public, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in an interview with the UK Financial Times said on 17 February that the Russian president “can choose to make Russia a destabilising power… which could mean a permanent strategy of tension over the long term, or he can choose to become the actor, the partner, in a new security and stability order in Europe.”

Le Drian outlined a three-step approach to defusing the Ukraine crisis, namely, a verified withdrawal of Russian forces deployed on the Ukrainian border, the resumption of talks on the Minsk Accords with the aim of ending the war between Moscow-backed separatists and Kyiv in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and a new European security framework.

It is interesting and encouraging to note that the same idea of a common European security architecture, most importantly including Russia, was voiced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz during his visit to Moscow when he met Putin early in the week.

Judging from US and British reactions to Russian attempts to defuse the tensions surrounding the situation in Ukraine, it seems that the US and Britain are not interested, for now, in supporting the emergence of a new European security order. In his interview with the Financial Times, Le Drian said that there are “no more rules” governing European security and stability because arms-control pacts covering everything from intermediate-range nuclear missiles to transparency on military force movements have become “nearly obsolete or irrelevant”.

What the German chancellor said in Moscow and what the French foreign minister talked about concerning a new European security architecture should be on the table in any serious talks to solve the Ukraine crisis. It goes without saying that such talks would necessitate a substantial drawdown of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine, on the one hand, and stopping NATO’s growing military assistance to Ukraine, on the other. 

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis should be the first step to new security arrangements in Europe that would ensure the security of the continent and stability for all. It would greatly help if Anglo-American diplomacy were more cooperative in this respect. 

It is also noteworthy in this regard that the statement on Russia and Ukraine released by the foreign ministers of the G7 group of countries and the high representative for foreign affairs of the European Union on 19 February reiterated their commitment “to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the current crisis” and urged Russia “to take up the offer of dialogue through the US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue and the NATO-Russia Council.”

The statement also commended the Renewed OSCE European Security Dialogue proposed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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