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Russia-West talks at an impasse

Roman Goncharenko | Alexander Savitsky
January 13, 2022

Talks between Russia and the West this week to resolve the security crisis surrounding Ukraine have not led to a breakthrough. Experts expect the crisis to escalate as Moscow ups the ante.

Wendy Sherman with Sergei Ryabkov
This week has seen an unprecedented array of meetings on the Ukraine crisisImage: Denis Balibouse/KEYSTONE/REUTERS/dpa/picture alliance

The OSCE meeting in Vienna on Thursday marks the end of the first round of negotiations between Russia and the West. The week kicked off with a US-Russian face to face in Geneva followed by talks with NATO in Brussels. This followed unexpected diplomatic overtures from Moscow at the end of 2021.

The agendas have revolved around security policy in Europe and the potential NATO membership of ex-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia. In 2008, NATO offered both countries the prospect of joining the bloc — without, however, fixing a date. Russia has threatened to resort to "military-technical measures," as President Vladimir Putin put it, if the West continues down that path.

Talks and flexing of muscles

A week of talks has failed to bring the parties any closer — and no signs of any easing of tensions in the Ukraine crisis. Russia has been involved in a large-scale military build up on its borders with Ukraine since late autumn. The US and NATO have rejected Moscow's demand for a de facto veto right regarding accession of new members to the military alliance.  It will, however, still take a number of days before Washington sends Moscow its official written response.

Further talks are not currently planned. Moscow has announced repeatedly that it is not interested in protracted discussions, but wants quick results. But they say they have not set a deadline.

 Vladimir Putin
US threats to slap personal sanctions on Vladimir Putin have not gone down wellImage: Evgenia Novozhenina/REUTERS

It was, at any rate, a historic week. There have never been so many meetings, of so many different kinds, in such a short space of time between Moscow and the West. Russia has also been upping the rhetorical ante — with its top diplomats comparing the current conflict with the Cuba crisis.

At the start of the negotiations, Moscow announced new military exercises on the Ukraine border. The US countered by drawing up draft legislation that would impose personal sanctions on President Vladimir Putin. The bill — put forward in Washington as talks were underway in Brussels — would, says the US, be enforced in the case of an escalation of the situation in Ukraine.

Strident Russian diplomacy

Even before the talks had started, the strident and coarse tone of Russian diplomacy was striking.

The head of the Russian delegation in Geneva, Sergey Ryabkov, urged NATO "to pack up its stuff and withdraw to the lines of 1997."  That was the year in which former Warsaw Pact states Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were first offered the prospect of NATO membership, followed by more eastern European states in the ensuing years. Russia called for the withdrawal of NATO troops and weapons systems stationed in the area after 1997. Later, sources close to Russian negotiators said that Moscow had "chewed over" things with Washington and they complained about US "narrowmindedness."

NATO chief Stoltenberg talks to DW

Is that really the language of someone who wants to win over their opposite number? Is it a sign that Moscow never believed that the talks would bear fruit?

"The ultimatum that Russia issued to the United States and the West had no prospect of success from the outset," says ex-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Georgiy Kunadze. He told DW that Moscow's coarse rhetoric was meant more for the Russian public back home. But Kunadze added that harsh words did not mean that shooting would start soon.

Wintermanöver in Russland
Tensions remain high after a week of talks between Russia and the West over Ukraine ended in failureImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Rüdiger von Fritsch, the former German ambassador to Moscow, sees things similarly:  "What we are currently experiencing is strong language as part of a very aggressive performance.” The diplomat told DW: "Russia is trying to build up maximum pressure to unilaterally change the jointly agreed European peace order and its rules at the expense of third parties."

He said that a further escalation could not be entirely ruled out — also in the light of the "huge expectations on the home front" in Russia, which are "worrying," according to von Fritsch. He says that the Russian leadership would have to consider how it extricates itself from that situation. Von Fritsch does not believe that these strong words will necessarily be followed by military conflict: "You don't have to see it like that. It is part of the whole performance."

Kyiv wants more weapons from the West

Experts in Ukraine view the situation differently. They are expecting an uptick in aggression, following the de facto failure of talks between Russia and the West.

"My prognosis is that Russia's next step will be an escalation," Jevhen Mahda told DW. The foreign policy analyst said that Ukraine should be prepared for the worst. Former Ukraine Foreign Minister Wolodymyr Ohrysko has called on the West to supply additional weapons.

And what signals is Moscow sending? Alexander Grushko, head of the Russian delegation at the talks with NATO, offered the prospect of a de-escalation only under certain conditions: the complete implementation of the Minsk Agreement, an end to arms supplies and the training programs for the Ukrainian army. Observers in Kyiv said that it was very unlikely that Ukraine and the West would respond to those demands.

Foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov, who is close to the Kremlin, outlined how the situation might develop in the official state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. His assessment seems pessimistic.

Lukyanov describes the differences as "apparently irreconcilable." The gap in perceptions between Russia and the West is so great, according to the analyst, that a "new and rather dangerous escalation would be needed or could occur," in order "to force" the parties to new forms of agreement. Lukyanov says it is still unclear what exactly will happen.

The article was originally written in German.