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Ukraine’s fate hangs in balance as ‘critical’ week of talks begins

A momentous week of diplomacy is about to begin in Europe, with the fate of Ukraine, hemmed in by 100,000 Russian troops, at stake.

Senior diplomats from the US and Russia will meet in Geneva on Sunday and Monday to discuss Moscow’s demands, laid down in two draft treaties last month, one with the US and one with NATO. Much of their content is unacceptable to Washington and the alliance, and above all a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.

The Biden administration emphasizes that the right of sovereign states to apply for NATO membership is non-negotiable. The deployment of US troops in Europe is also not the case, government officials emphasized on the eve of the talks. However, they said Washington would discuss other security guarantees, such as reciprocal restrictions on the deployment of missiles on the continent. That would fall far short of the comprehensive changes Moscow is demanding.

Few, if any, diplomatic observers expect a quick deal this week to resolve the crisis, but the opposite — a full-blown collapse — is possible. It should soon become clear whether Russia is interested in negotiating its proposals or whether they were meant to be rejected, providing a pretext for a war that Vladimir Putin has already decided.

“Lower your expectations and then lower them some more,” says Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Pay attention to Moscow’s demands during the meetings. If Russia insists that NATO can never expand again, we will know that Moscow is preparing for war in Ukraine as this is a red line for the west.”

The two sides in Geneva will be led by experienced negotiators, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov, accompanied by senior officials from their respective defense departments and armies. Negotiations were set to begin Monday, but officials said there would be a less formal meeting between the two delegations on Sunday evening.

US officials insist that Sherman and her team discuss only the bilateral elements of the Russian proposals, and not something in which other countries have a sovereign interest. The mantra to the capitals of Kiev and NATO is, “Nothing about you without you.”

What it's like to walk on Ukraine's frontline – video
What it’s like to walk on Ukraine’s frontline – video

The negotiating teams will move to Brussels on Wednesday for a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, in which all 30 alliance members will participate. It will be the council’s first such meeting since 2019, which was established in 2002 to ease tensions and build consensus.

The next day, there is a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), chaired by Poland, in Vienna. Representatives will be at a more junior, ambassadorial level than the previous day’s NATO session. However, it will be of particular importance as it will also include non-Nato European states, such as Finland and Sweden, which are considering their future in the face of Russian pressure on Ukraine. Finnish leaders, in particular, have strongly hinted in recent days that they might rethink NATO membership.

“We believe that after bilateral talks with the United States and then NATO form, it is possible that some developments are possible in this wider forum,” said Nikodem Rachoń, the spokesman for the Polish embassy in Warsaw.

Washington says the US-Russia meeting in Geneva will primarily be an opportunity to put forward positions rather than resolve them.

“On Monday, we will listen to Russia explain its proposals and the underlying concerns that motivate them. We will respond and share our own concerns,” said a senior government official. “Hopefully it will result in identifying a few bilateral issues where there is enough common ground to continue the discussions.”

It is not clear whether Sherman or Ryabkov are authorized to bring new ideas to the table. “They will talk about the Russian attitude, they will talk about stability,” said a European diplomat informed about the American preparations. “They will talk about the Russian demands and explain why they are not acceptable, and they will ask our own questions about European stability and Russian actions.”

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: Mandel Ngan/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Sherman is also expected to list the costs to Russia if it continues with military action in Ukraine, including sweeping financial sanctions, potentially shutting down the international electronic payment system Swift, and restrictions on its citizens’ ability to purchase Western technology.

According to the New York Times, the chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, has also warned his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, that an invasion would involve a lengthy uprising, supported by advanced US weapons. US officials have declined to comment on reports that Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were being sent to Ukraine in anticipation of such a guerrilla war.

“This week’s diplomacy is crucial. From a certain point, it was clear that the West would not say an outright ‘no’ to Moscow’s proposal because there was too much at stake. The question was how far Washington and Europeans are willing to go with the talks,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, senior research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Russia’s hasty military intervention in Kazakhstan has thrown another wild card on the table, but Baklitskiy expects no impact on the Ukraine crisis. “There is no direct link between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Even the people handling the issue in Russia are different, except for the very top,” he said.

Others say it is too early to say whether the uprising and response will discourage or encourage the Kremlin. “To what extent are the Russians worried about Kazakhstan or do they think they can handle it? I don’t think we have a feel for that yet,” said a European diplomat.

If there’s any wiggle room at all in this week’s negotiations, it could come in one of a handful of categories. The Biden administration and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have ruled out bowing to Russia’s demands to exclude Ukraine from the alliance, but some analysts say this leaves open the possibility of a compromise, in which the theoretical possibility of membership is asserted at the same time with a clear statement that there would be many obstacles to be overcome and that this would not happen in the near future.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

That may be palatable in Washington and NATO capitals, but it may not be enough for Putin. “Frankly, I’d be surprised if that were the case,” said the European diplomat. “Given their demands, I think they would prefer not to address the issue at all. Otherwise, it turns out that they have not written down their demand that Ukraine not join NATO.”

Another area of ​​potential compromise concerns the deployment of troops. The Russian proposals call for the withdrawal of US troops from NATO’s eastern flank, where they were sent after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and a guarantee that no intermediate-range nuclear missiles would be deployed on European soil.

The proposals did not offer any reciprocal moves by Russia to withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border region or withdraw its own missiles. That could be a point of negotiation. Russia has expressed concern about the possibility of offensive weapons, such as missiles capable of reaching Moscow, being deployed in Ukraine. Washington has said it has no plans to take such a step.

“Putin could go back and say that we are confident that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO any time soon and that we have assurances that there will be no offensive weapons — fighter jets, missiles — or US bases in Ukraine,” he said. said Rajan Menon, a political scientist at the City University of New York. “But will the Russians insist that this be put in writing? That’s the sticky part.”

The most serious limiting factor in the negotiations could turn out to be the political constraints on the main parties.

“If you look at the polarization here, it suggests that we don’t have bandwidth on the US side to actually do anything, to demand peace, let alone come up with a treaty or set of treaties,” he said. Fiona Hill, a former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the US National Security Council. “Putin has his own time frame of elections in 2024, and he wants to show something because his own popularity is lagging somewhat.”

The deployment of so many troops and the Kremlin’s rhetoric have raised high Russian expectations of what would be a satisfactory outcome of this week’s diplomacy. Moscow officials have maintained that nothing less than “legally formulated security guarantees” would be enough to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border.

“Putin has put himself in a position where he has to come back with something, without looking really weak,” Menon said. “Given the political reality now, am I confident that a deal will come? No not at all. I think it’s going to be very, very unpredictable.”