Five things to know as US, Russia seek Ukraine solution

Ukrainian servicemen walk to their position at the frontline with Russia-backed separatists outside the village of Verkhnotoretske
Associated Press/Andriy Andriyenko

The Biden administration is setting out on an extraordinary diplomatic mission in Europe next week, holding a string of engagements meant to tamp down dangerously high tensions with Russia.

The three meetings, set to take place between Monday and Friday in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, were quickly coordinated in response to Russia’s massing of tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border.

Moscow’s military posturing is raising fears that it seeks to expand its control of Ukrainian territory like it did in 2014 with the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula as well as its support for separatists in Ukraine’s east engaged in an eight-year kinetic conflict with the Kyiv government.

U.S. officials have balked at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that Ukraine is threatening his country’s security and at Moscow’s demands that the U.S. and its allies in NATO cease any sort of expansion

But the Biden administration says the schedule of multiple engagements provides an opportunity for Russia to raise its concerns.

“We will listen,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a press conference on Wednesday but warned that Russia cannot impose its demands “in an atmosphere of escalation and threat with a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.”

Here are five things to know about the upcoming talks.   

1. Putin’s motives are mysterious

Putin’s massing of tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine late last year was met with shock and urgency by Western nations.

But it also raised confusion over the longtime Russian leader’s end game: whether Moscow was intent on instigating a large-scale military conflict to control the former Soviet state or was making a play to force Western nations to the table. 

Elina Treyger, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation with a focus on Russia, said Putin is motivated to have a “weak” Ukraine on its border and is concerned by Kyiv’s pursuit of closer economic and military alliances with the West, in particular its desire to join NATO. 

The Kremlin’s preference is to have a Ukraine that is more friendly with the Russian government, Treyger said.

“Failing that, they need to weaken it,” she said. 

William Taylor, vice president of Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and a former ambassador to Ukraine, said that while “no one really knows what’s in President Putin’s mind,” he is likely considering his legacy in the history of Russia. 

“President Putin wants to be seen in the historical league of great Russian leaders, and he is convinced, I believe, that he cannot be this great Russian leader unless he has Ukraine in Russia,” Taylor said.

2. US and Russia meet before NATO joins

U.S. officials alone will first meet with their Russian counterparts in Geneva on Monday, signaling the importance that Russia assigns America as a leader among its allies, said Treyger.

“They get the U.S. as their favored interlocutor because they think the U.S. gets to decide most things,” she said, adding that she agrees that the meetings in Geneva are likely to set the tone for the next schedule of events.

A senior State Department official on Friday warned that Russia will seek to use the Geneva meeting to undermine U.S. coordination with its allies.

“We fully expect that the Russian side will make public comments following the meeting on Monday that will not reflect the true nature of the discussions that took place,” the official said. “We would urge our allies and partners to view those comments with extreme skepticism and to continue their ongoing discussions and coordination with the United States.”

The meeting in Geneva is an “extraordinary session” of the Strategic Stability Dialogue that has taken place twice before between Washington and Moscow, the official said, scheduled in direct relation to the crisis in Ukraine.

Yet U.S. officials say they are not going to discuss Ukraine with the Russians without officials from Kyiv present and instead will focus on addressing what Russia says are its security demands of the U.S., made public in a draft treaty in December. 

Blinken has dismissed some of the draft treaty’s demands as non-starters but highlighted other issues as starting points for discussions, including arms control and nuclear weapon nonproliferation and greater transparency between both nations to reduce the risk of conflict. 

“If Russia has legitimate concerns about our actions, the United States, our NATO allies, our OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] partners are willing to hear them and to try to address them if the Kremlin is prepared to reciprocate regarding its own dangerous and destabilizing behavior,” Blinken told reporters in a briefing on Friday.

A senior administration official told reporters on Saturday that the U.S. was prepared to talk to Russia about compromise with respect to missile deployments and military exercises in Eastern Europe.  

3. ‘Extraordinary … back-to-back sessions’

Just two days after the Geneva talks, U.S. officials will join NATO allies in Belgium under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council, a dialogue group meeting for the first time since 2019. 

Finally, Russia will come face to face with Ukraine in a meeting in Vienna being held by the OSCE.

Taylor, of USIP, called it “extraordinary to have these three back-to-back sessions” that reflect the urgency of the threat Russia poses to Ukraine.

“They scheduled them so quickly and so back to back to back that the normal interagency, bureaucratic — but important — institutional arrangements and considerations are being prepared quickly … by virtue of the Russians demanding to have a conversation at the barrel of a gun.”

The close sequence of meetings are part of Biden’s strategy of “nothing about you without you” with allies, saying that any discussions concern a particular country take place with that nation present at the table. 

4. Nord Stream 2 stands as a wrinkle

The administration has implemented an all-hands-on-deck diplomatic push to unite allies across the world in a single message: Russia will face severe, globally coordinated consequences if it launches an invasion of Ukraine, in particular economic sanctions.

The U.S. has also said it’s prepared to increase its troop presence in Europe if Russia invades Ukraine as part of its obligations to NATO countries on Ukraine and Russia’s border. 

“Should Russia further invade Ukraine, we would reinforce our NATO allies on the eastern flank, to whom we have a sacred obligation,” the senior State Department official said.

Still, a slight fracture in the unity of allies is Germany’s support for Nord Stream 2 — a Russian-owned natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany.

The Biden administration opposes the pipeline becoming operable but waived key sanctions in May to preserve U.S. and German relations, which drew bipartisan criticism from Congress.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had stalled dozens of Biden’s diplomatic nominees over his opposition to the sanctions move, relenting with the promise of a Senate floor vote on legislation he authored to override the president’s waiver and impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company that constructed the pipeline.

The vote is expected this month. 

Blinken, in recent days, has sought to reframe U.S. opposition to the pipeline as an opportunity for Berlin to exert pressure on Moscow.

“This pipeline does not have gas flowing through it at present, and if Russia renews its aggression toward Ukraine, it would certainly be difficult to see gas flowing through it in the future,” Blinken said on Wednesday. “So some may see Nord Stream 2 as leverage that Russia can use against Europe. In fact, it’s leverage for Europe to use against Russia.”

5. Crisis in Kazakhstan poses a wild card

The Biden administration has expressed concern over the escalating and deadly crisis in Kazakhstan, where mass protests opposing the government are being met with brutal suppression. Russian-led peacekeepers were called to help quell the situation at the request of the Kazakh president.

It’s not clear whether the situation in Kazakhstan will influence the diplomatic meetings next week. The former Soviet state sits on Russia’s southeastern border in Central Asia and is friendly to Moscow but has a strategic relationship with Washington. 

Blinken on Friday cautioned against conflating Russia’s possible involvement with the crisis in Kazakhstan and Moscow’s threats against Ukraine but raised concern. 

“I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave,” he said.

Tags Antony Blinken Brussels Geneva Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia–NATO relations Russia–United States summit Russo-Ukrainian War Ted Cruz Ukraine Ukraine-Russia conflict vienna Vladimir Putin

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