Despite Russian Tensions, Ukraine Talks Continue with Hopeful Tones

Fears of a Russian strike on its neighbor grew after the US and NATO rejected the Kremlin’s security demands for Ukraine last week.

Instead of sending armored armadas across the Ukrainian border, as the US and its allies feared, Moscow sent diplomatic letters to Western capitals about an international accord that the Kremlin regards as a compelling rationale for its position in the stalemate.

Despite saying a month ago that he sought a speedy response to Russian requests and warning that Moscow would not accept “idle dialogue,” President Vladimir Putin indicated earlier this week that he was open to fresh talks with Washington and NATO.

And that provides a ray of optimism. Despite the fact that over 100,000 Russian troops remain near Ukraine and weeks of discussions have yielded no big concessions from either side, Russia and the West continue to speak, which some analysts see as a basis for cautious optimism.

“On the one hand, Putin fired rhetorical barbs at the West and emphasized perceived slights; on the other hand, he left open the possibility of talking in greater depth about at least some of the issues where the West has been willing to engage,” said Jeff Rathke, a former US diplomat and president of Johns Hopkins University’s American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Rathke added, “We’re kind of where we were a few weeks ago.” “Putin hasn’t ruled out any possibilities. He hasn’t ruled out negotiations, but he hasn’t toned down his venomous language.”

On the most important problems, Russia and the West remain at odds, and it’s unclear how a solution might be struck. The Kremlin’s new emphasis on diplomacy, on the other hand, appears to reflect Putin’s intention of achieving his objectives through discussions while using the deployment of soldiers near Ukraine as leverage.

“Russia will retain a harsh stance while hinting that it is open to discussions,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, who leads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies in Moscow and closely monitors Kremlin thinking. “Such intricate agreements aren’t negotiated over a cup of tea in a pleasant setting, therefore all techniques of persuasion are employed, even the use of force.”

Russia insists it has no plans to invade its neighbor, but it wants NATO to deny Ukraine and other former Soviet republics membership and promise not to put weapons there. NATO forces in Eastern Europe should also be reduced.

During a series of meetings last month, the US and its allies explicitly rejected those requests as “nonstarters,” but Moscow sought a written response, stoking fears that it intended a formal rejection of its demands to use as a basis for deploying troops into Ukraine.

On Jan. 26, the US and NATO delivered their response to Moscow, ruling out any concessions on Russia’s main demands while leaving the door open for discussions on other issues such as offensive missile deployment limits, greater transparency in military drills, and other confidence-building measures.

Putin has yet to respond to the Western suggestions, but his diplomats have cautioned that if the West continues to ignore Moscow’s fundamental objectives, progress on those matters would be impossible.

The impasse has fanned worries of impending conflict, and in a phone discussion with Ukraine’s president last week, US President Joe Biden warned that there is a “clear probability” that Russia may invade in February.

For the time being, Moscow appears to have chosen a diplomatic path, and US officials have toned down their rhetoric about “imminence” in recent days. The United States, on the other hand, has not backed down from its worries.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed additional letters to his Western colleagues on Monday, rebutting NATO’s position that each country has the freedom to select which alliances it joins. He said that the alliance’s growth violates its responsibility not to bolster its security at the expense of Russia.

In papers signed at summits of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the major trans-Atlantic security body, the United States and its allies have agreed to uphold the “indivisibility of security,” according to Lavrov.

“Security for everyone or no security for anybody,” Lavrov wrote, adding that his ministry will now wait for formal responses to his letter before advising Putin on further steps.

The letter exchange might set the stage for a long series of obscure debates about differing interpretations of OSCE treaties, and Putin signaled willingness to engage in such debates.

The Russian president said Tuesday, in his first public words on the dispute since late December, that although the West opposes Russia’s fundamental demands, diplomatic attempts should continue. “I hope that we will finally find a solution,” Putin added, “but we recognize that it will not be simple.”

Putin’s calm stance contrasted with his December comment that he expects a speedy response from the West and that if the US and its allies continue to disregard Moscow’s concerns, he may order unspecified “military-technical steps.”

In his remarks last week, Putin said only that “we need to find a solution to safeguard the interests and security of all parties, including Ukraine, European states, and Russia.”

Along with meetings with the US and NATO, Russia also held separate talks on a delayed 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine. A meeting of presidential envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany in Paris did not yield quick results, but they will meet again in Berlin later this month.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he’s willing to visiting Russia to help alleviate tensions after speaking with Putin three times since last Friday, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also revealed intentions to visit Moscow shortly.

Russia would most certainly continue to exercise its military strength to demonstrate its determination, according to Lukyanov. He said that Russia could easily afford to station soldiers near Ukraine for an extended period of time and that a series of drills will be conducted to put pressure on the West.

“Troops may arrive and depart,” Lukyanov explained. “It’s quite inexpensive, and it fits within the budget for combat training that has already been set out.”

The drills include large-scale joint war games with Russia’s ally Belarus, which shares a northern border with Ukraine, and Lukyanov projected that Russia will strengthen its defense relations with Belarus.

Belarus’ autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko has already volunteered to host Russian nuclear weapons after being sanctioned by the West for his crackdown on opposition.

“Belarus will play a key role in the game,” Lukyanov said.

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