Opinion: US, Russia - keep talking | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 31.03.2014
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Opinion: US, Russia - keep talking

The US and Russia were unable to agree in their talks on Ukraine. But the fact they were talking at all means there is still hope in the Ukraine conflict, writes DW's Bernd Riegert.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrovspoke for five hours. And even if there was no big break in Paris - it's a positive sign that Russia and the West, represented by the US, are talking to each other again.

As long as talks continue and diplomacy has a chance, it is unlikely that Russia will invade Ukraine with the 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers it has amassed on the border with Ukraine. The talks between Kerry and Lavrov will have to reduce tensions and allow a return to reasonable policies. Even high-level discussions between the presidents should not be a taboo if this moves Vladimir Putin away from his rumored plans to swallow Transnistria - the strip of land dominated by Soviet Russian nostalgia that belongs to Moldova and borders Ukraine.

Putin's initiative

This time, it was apparently the Russian president who took the first step with his surprising phone call with US President Barack Obama. It can thus be said that the West's strategy, which was reiterated a few days earlier in the Hague at the G7 summit, was showing initial success: The Russians have realized that they are isolated internationally. A look at the economic data in particular provides some insight.

Perhaps it wasn't Putin himself, but his economically influential inner circle, which wants, and indeed needs, de-escalation. Although economic sanctions have not yet been imposed, investors are fleeing Russia. It is not just Western companies staying away, even rich Russians are moving their money out of the country. The ruble is losing value. The Russian central bank expects stagnation, not growth, as the best-case scenario for the current year.

In the past few days, Barack Obama and the European Union have made credible threats that they would apply the economic thumbscrews if Russia should were to move further into Ukraine. And, at least in the long term, Europe will cut its energy imports from Russia. It has the Kremlin to thank for this sense of unity.

Wounded pride

Obama's deliberate verbal attack on Putin's ego has obviously worked. Obama dismissed Russia, with its global ambitions, as a secondary "regional power." But whatever brought the Russians to the negotiating table, the West should be careful not to resort to triumphalism or glee, as is already being said in US conservative circles. Arrogance might alienate Russia. The Russians are still needed to find a peaceful and satisfactory solution to the Ukraine crisis.

The US is insisting on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the border region with Ukraine - and justifies this with the "climate of fear and intimidation" that the troops create. Whether Russia will respond to the demand is questionable. Russia is demanding a neutral Ukraine, with a federal constitution with strong rights for the Russian minority. It would not be allowed to join NATO.

Whether Ukraine would, or should, accept such a limitation of its sovereignty, is hotly contested. Lavrov would probably prefer to negotiate over Ukraine's head, and not with it. This cannot be accepted. Ukraine is not a prize for the West or Russia to fight over. Kerry stressed after the Paris meeting there would be "no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine."

Fait accompli

It is striking that the American secretary of state is not insisting on the withdrawal of the Russians from Crimea, even though western countries regard its annexation as a violation of international law. Kerry's goal is to prevent further military escalation. He, and the Europeans, must have seen that Crimea is lost to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Russia will not let go of Crimea again.

Therefore, in spite of commendable diplomatic efforts, there can be no return to normalcy with Russia. The pressure must be kept up. Vladimir Putin has been discredited by his policy of expansion. Obviously, he has at least understood where his limits are now supposed to be.

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