In US-Russia talks, how far can Vladimir Putin turn back the clock?

And in the three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the tension between the world’s two principal nuclear adversaries has never been worse — making the pathway to a peaceful de-escalation harder to discern.

The New York Times January 11, 2022 08:13:24 IST
In US-Russia talks, how far can Vladimir Putin turn back the clock?

File image of President Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', in Geneva, Switzerland. AP

Washington: To the Biden administration, the direct talks that began in earnest Monday in Geneva are about defusing the chances of a major war in Europe — potentially ignited by a Russian invasion of Ukraine — and upholding the principle that nations cannot redraw international borders by force.

For President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the issue is clearly much broader: Whether he can roll back the clock to the mid-1990s, using this particular moment in history to, in the words of conservative historian Niall Ferguson, “re-create the old Soviet sphere of influence.”

The demand Russia is making, and repeated in Geneva on Monday, is hardly new. But if taken at face value, its implications for the revival of superpower rivalry are striking: If the West wants an end to the threats to Ukraine, Putin’s government has declared, it must pull back its arms, its forces and even its nuclear weapons from former Soviet states. It must commit that Ukraine and other states in the region will never join the NATO alliance.

If that stance has echoes of the Berlin crisis of 1961, which led to the building of the wall, or the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact powers in 1968, well, the similarities (and some significant differences) are all there.

The lesson of the past year maybe that while the Cold War is long over, Cold War-like behavior lives on. And in the three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the tension between the world’s two principal nuclear adversaries has never been worse — making the pathway to a peaceful de-escalation harder to discern.

That was clear as the American deputy secretary of state, Wendy R. Sherman, an experienced diplomat who faced off against the North Koreans in the 1990s and the Iranians during President Barack Obama’s last term, talked about Russian “security proposals that are simply non-starters” at the end of eight hours of talks Monday.

“We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance,” Sherman told reporters. “We will not forgo bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States. And we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, or about NATO without NATO.”

It is possible that her public stance will force Putin to set aside his larger ambitions for another day. She described two areas in which the United States was willing to deal: Reviving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the Trump administration abandoned, and setting “reciprocal limits on the size and scope of military exercises.”

But both would return Russia to the post-Cold War status quo. And that appears to be what Putin sees a chance to discard.

“Europe has faced such ugly moments too often before,” Frederick Kempe, chief executive of the Atlantic Council, wrote over the weekend, “where matters of life and death — and of war and peace — depended on the balance of power and test of wills between despots and more benevolent forces.”

Decades after President George HW Bush declared in 1989 that the time had arrived to “let Europe be whole and free,” President Joe Biden finds himself at a “moment of truth for the dying embers of that aspiration,” Kempe wrote.

The good news is that no one is threatening to roll out the most fearsome weapons. Just the other day, Washington and Moscow — along with the other original nuclear states, Britain, France and China — reaffirmed in a statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

But for anyone who imagined in the early 1990s that Russia in 2022 might be integrated into Europe, what is unfolding this week is a reminder that there was nothing permanent about the security disposition of post-Cold War Europe. To Putin, at least, it was a temporary arrangement, subject to renegotiation when the distribution of power in the global order looked promising to him.

“We need to assure the curtailing of the destructive NATO activities that have been taking place for decades and bring NATO back to positions that are essentially equivalent to what was the case in 1997,” Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said hours before the talks began. “But it is precisely on these issues that we hear least of all any readiness on the part of the American side and NATO to come to an agreement.”

He did not choose the year 1997 by chance. That was the year of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which in the Clinton administration’s phrasing envisioned “an enduring and robust partnership between the alliance and Russia.” The agreement made clear, the State Department said at the time, that Russia did not have a veto over alliance decisions and that NATO membership would “remain open to all emerging European democracies.”

Since then, 15 nations have joined the NATO alliance, over Russia’s increasingly strident objections. While there is little chance that Ukraine would qualify for membership for years to come, Putin has made clear it is not enough to simply provide an assurance that Ukraine, which he considers part of the heart of the old Soviet empire, would never join NATO.

Putin also wants to ensure that the West’s arms and troops are banished from the former Warsaw Pact states, including Poland and Romania. The fear among Western officials is that any such retreat would endanger those democracies and enable Putin to amp up his strategy of intimidation — via threat of invasion, election manipulation, cyberattack or other forms of coercion.

Ryabkov said Sunday he was intent on negotiating “dynamically, without pauses,” to prevent the West from “putting the brakes on all this and burying it in endless discussions.” Which is exactly what Washington and its European allies would like to do: slow down the process while they try to negotiate a withdrawal of the 100,000 or so Russian troops now massing on three sides of Ukraine.

Putin, Pentagon strategists believe, knows his window is limited: His battalions can mount a major invasion only in winter, when the ground is frozen enough to roll tanks and armored personnel carriers across the border. By April, mud season sets in.

So the question remaining as the talks move to Brussels for a session between Russia and NATO on Wednesday, and then the gathering of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes Ukraine) on Thursday — is whether Putin is looking for a graceful way out, a partial victory or a pretext for invasion.

Biden’s aides say the United States wants a solution, but not at the price of allowing encroachments on Ukraine’s territorial integrity or reductions in American troop levels.

Sherman held out hope that it was passible to make “genuine progress through diplomacy.” She suggested that there was a fairly deep conversation about new limits on intermediate nuclear missiles — an easy subject for the United States, since it does not keep any in Europe, while Russia has, for years, deployed them close to its borders.

And the discussion of putting limits on military exercises is a way to try to get Putin to withdraw his 100,000 troops from the menacing pincer they have created on three sides of Ukraine.

Privately, American officials have expressed doubts that Putin has much incentive to do so. Mulling his legacy and intent on reversing what he contends were years in which Russia was disrespected and encircled, Putin may see this as his moment to restore more glorious moments.

The worry among officials is that Russia is going through the motions of this week’s diplomacy only to declare that its concerns have not been addressed — and that Putin will attempt to seize more of eastern Ukraine or carry out cyber or other attacks to cripple the government in Kyiv.

Ryabkov was clear about the consequences of what would happen if diplomacy fails: a “military-technical response.”

David E. Sanger c.2022 The New York Times Company

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