Russia saber rattling gets the West talking. Is a deal with NATO next?

Russia saber rattling gets the West talking. Is a deal with NATO next?




No one in Moscow seems able to explain why Vladimir Putin has chosen the current moment to issue an ultimatum over NATO’s oft-restated intention to ultimately bring Ukraine into the alliance.

But most analysts agree that the Kremlin initiated suspicious troop movements along the Ukrainian border late last month to force that conversation to happen. And it seems to be starting to do so.

Why We Wrote This

By building up Russian troops near Ukraine, the Kremlin has been putting pressure on the West to talk about NATO expansion. Now, amid a flurry of diplomacy, Moscow feels like it might be heard.

During their video summit last week, President Joe Biden appears to have told Mr. Putin that talks could take place around Russian demands in order to see whether “we can work out any accommodation as it relates to bringing down the eastern front.” Mr. Putin said that a document outlining the Russian position would be sent to Washington very soon.

In a later phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mr. Biden pressed the Ukrainian leader on the need to implement the Minsk-2 peace deal, which requires direct talks with the two Russian-backed rebel republics in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Putin has “drawn a line,” says Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia will never agree to the prospect of a Ukraine in NATO, or any U.S. military base there, or already the future possibility of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians being Ukrainianized.”

Moscow

NATO’s current expansion into Eastern Europe and former Soviet lands has been a bitter issue for Moscow for almost 30 years.

The Kremlin has watched all the former Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies and three former Soviet republics join NATO, while the front line between NATO and Russia has moved about 600 miles to the east. The Russians claim, with important evidence, that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was given strong verbal assurances that NATO would move “not one inch” eastward.

Now, Vladimir Putin seems to believe that it’s finally time to get that in writing.

Why We Wrote This

By building up Russian troops near Ukraine, the Kremlin has been putting pressure on the West to talk about NATO expansion. Now, amid a flurry of diplomacy, Moscow feels like it might be heard.

No one in Moscow seems able to explain why Mr. Putin has chosen the current moment to issue an ultimatum over NATO’s oft-restated intention to ultimately bring Ukraine into the alliance. But most analysts agree that the Kremlin initiated suspicious troop movements along the Ukrainian border, in Russia’s Western Military District, late last month in order to force exactly that conversation to happen.

Few believe that Russia truly intends to move into Ukraine – a war that would be intensely unpopular at home. Nevertheless, the Kremlin keeps reiterating that military options are on the table if its concerns aren’t satisfactorily addressed.

“What Russia wants is a dialogue with leading NATO powers that would move the discussion away from the standard Western view that Europe’s security order is fine but just has a Russia problem, to an examination of the dangerous flaws in Europe’s security system and the need to address Russia’s concerns,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “It is not in addition clear whether that is going to happen in any permissible form or not. So the crisis continues.”

Russia’s red lines

The White House readout on last week’s video summit between Mr. Putin and President Joe Biden insists that Mr. Putin was sternly warned of serious consequences for any attack on Ukraine, including devastating sanctions and “other measures,” presumably supplies of arms and sustain to Kyiv.

The Kremlin version acknowledged that, but additional Russian grievances over the growing penetration of NATO into Ukraine and Kyiv’s foot-dragging on implementing the Minsk-2 peace deal, which requires direct talks with the two Russian-backed rebel republics in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Biden appears to have told Mr. Putin that talks could take place around Russian demands in order to see whether “we can work out any accommodation as it relates to bringing down the eastern front,” perhaps involving a few top NATO allies, while Mr. Putin said that a document outlining the Russian position going into those talks would be sent to Washington very soon.

In a later phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mr. Biden offered strong sustain for Ukraine and insisted that Russia would have no say in its bid to join NATO, but also pressed the Ukrainian leader on the need to implement the Minsk peace deal.

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<p> Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP </p>
<p>Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks in a trench as he visits the war-hit Donetsk vicinity in eastern Ukraine, Dec. 6, 2021. Ukrainian troops have been on alert due to the Russian soldiers amassing across the border, though few analysts believe an invasion is likely.</p>
<p>Amid all this ambiguity, Russia appears to have received the message that the United States may be prepared to offer some concessions, if not outright guarantees about future NATO enlargement.</p>
<p>“The way things stand right now is that Biden gave no promises concerning Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and Putin did not clarify anything about Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine,” says Vladimir Yevseyev, a security expert at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “Russia has three red lines about Ukraine: no NATO membership, no U.S. military bases on Ukrainian soil, and no offensive armaments stationed near Russia’s borders.”</p>
<p>Experts suggest that the Kremlin’s vision is to create a system of neutral states between NATO and Russia, perhaps something like Finland or Austria during the Cold War – no one uses the sensitive information “Finlandization,” but that seems close to what they average. The system would be secured by international agreement, with guarantees for the independence, sovereignty, and democratic choice of those former Soviet countries, especially Ukraine and Georgia.</p>
<p>Chances of the U.S. and its allies accepting that idea seem vanishingly slim, say experts. already Mr. Biden’s offer to keep up talks with Russia and a few meaningful NATO allies has run into a firestorm of objections from Eastern European allies who oppose any dialogue with Russia.</p>
<p>“For Russia, everything depends on whether Biden is serious about getting a group of leading NATO allies together to discuss specific concerns Russia has about NATO,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “It’s an important gesture Biden made, and any positive development will be appreciated by the Kremlin.”</p>
<h2>Balancing tensions</h2>
<p>Short of a grand bargain about NATO enlargement, trust-building deals could be cut about positioning of weapons in Eastern Europe, limiting of missile defense systems in Europe, and other stabilizing measures that might mollify the Kremlin.</p>
<p>“Biden needs to balance his sustain for Ukraine with his desire for better relations with Russia,” says Mr. Kortunov. “All the talk in Washington these days is about concentrating on the Chinese threat, but that will be much harder if tensions are spiking with Russia in the West.”</p>
<p>Mr. Biden’s potential that he would nudge Ukraine to implement the Minsk-2 accords presents another political minefield. The agreements, signed at a moment of Ukrainian weakness in 2015, require Kyiv to talk directly to rebel leaders and would reintegrate the Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine’s Donbass back into the whole, but with long-lasting autonomy. That’s political poison for Ukrainian nationalists, who foresee building a unitary Ukrainian state from the complicated territorial patchwork that Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union.</p>
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