Geneva summit talks present no obstacles to Moscow’s developing Ukraine isolation strategy

Geneva summit talks present no obstacles to Moscow’s developing Ukraine isolation strategy
No meeting of minds required in Geneva
By Gav Don in Edinburgh January 13, 2022

Monday, January 10 saw the first of three meetings between Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and western diplomats to discuss Russia’s demands for future agreements on European security. Judging by the press briefings given by Mr Ryabkov and, in Washington, by State Department Spokesman Ned Price, the talks saw no meaningful consensus, which begs the question of what they did in fact talk about for the eight-hour session. Perhaps they drank a lot of coffee.

The press briefings after the talks were not much more informative. Mr Ryabkov answered questions for 90 minutes, during which only one answer added clarity to Moscow’s strategy – revealing Moscow’s core objective that “it is absolutely mandatory for us to ensure that Ukraine never, ever, becomes a member of Nato.”

The phrasing of this answer is informative. The objective is a result, not a mechanism. What I mean by this is that Mr Ryabkov did not say “…it is absolutely mandatory for us to obtain a treaty preventing Ukraine from becoming a member of Nato”, or demand “…an undertaking from Ukraine never to join Nato”. Both of these objectives, and other variations on the theme of undertakings or treaties, would have set up an objective for the talks with an intrinsic (if unstated) timetable, and therefore an inherent capacity for failure.

Instead, Moscow’s stated aim contains no treaty and no timetable. Avoidance of a visible deadline or agreement is one win. Avoidance of a deadline is an obvious bonus, but less obvious is Moscow’s cynicism about the value of a treaty obligation undertaken by the United States. Two recent precedents have completely undermined international belief in Washington’s adherence to the core tenet of international relations – that “pacta sunt servanda” (and a third precedent has begun to undermine its belief in the UK’s faith as well).

Front and centre in Moscow’s perspective is the careless way in which the United States unilaterally tore up the JCPOA with Iran, while in the wings it has also observed the less obvious way in which the US agreement with China that Taiwan is part of its sovereign territory has been progressively undermined. Faith in Pacta Sunt Servanda has also been undercut by perceptions that the UK has ignored its treaty obligations with the European Commission in respect of Northern Ireland (though London would respond that the Commission broke its Pacta first by failing to act with Good Faith).

Moscow might also be forgiven for asking whether Washington even reads the treaties which it has signed. Mr Blinken’s repeated assertions that Nato is open to all, and that no-one has the right to dictate future memberships, is the exact opposite of the North Atlantic Treaty’s wording, which limits membership only to European states, and which gives every member a veto on accession by new states. Wendy Sherman has clearly not read the treaty either, since she stated in her press briefing yesterday that “We will not agree that any country should have a veto over any other country when it comes to being part of the Nato Alliance”.

With a history of breaches of non-treaty commitments given by the US Administration in 1989 and afterwards, Moscow is now almost certainly of the view that while a Treaty on European Security would be nice, it would also be worthless. If my conclusion is correct it would explain why Moscow’s stated objective is not a treaty but a result, and a result that is agnostic as to the mechanism by which it is achieved.

Moscow can achieve the exclusion of Ukraine from Nato by a number of routes, none of which require a treaty. The first mechanism is to dissuade Kyiv from formally applying to the Nato Council for membership, using its armoury of carrots and sticks and the considerable political influence of the millions of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Ukraine is relatively poor, depends for its energy supply on Russia, and has a large Russian ethnic minority, all of which circumstances provide ample scope for Moscow to exert pressure on Kyiv to refrain from applying. The construction of Nordstream was designed to add another stick, by allowing Moscow to withhold gas supplies to Ukraine without damaging gas sales to Europe.

If that fails, the first step in a Ukrainian application would be a request to join Nato’s Membership Action Plan (a step that has not yet been taken). Inside the MAP a candidate member is assessed on five key metrics, and gaps in those metrics are filled, over a period of many years. Once filled the candidate then enters a set of Accession Talks which lay out a programme of further reforms (some of which may continue after Accession) and when these reforms have passed a set of defined milestones the candidate formally submits a letter of intent to the Nato Council, after which member states vote to accept or reject the Application.

Failing conventional carrots and sticks Moscow has the (illegal) option of using armed force to prevent Kyiv from applying to join Nato. Before the last quarter of 2021 that option had to face Kyiv’s optimistic hope that either Nato or the European Commission or perhaps the US and the UK unilaterally would come to its aid to oppose Russian military coercion with armed force on Ukrainian ground.

Moscow’s strategy of Military Poise was designed to show Kyiv in no uncertain terms that its hopes were, and will remain, empty, and it has done that job almost perfectly. Members of the Euro-Atlantic community may send money, and they may even send supplies of battlefield weapons and some small obsolete warships, but they will not send the 150,000 men, 2,000 tanks and 500 front-line aircraft that would be needed to give Ukraine a chance of beating off a Russian attack.

Moscow’s strategy of Application Deterrence is beautifully subtle. The Application Process is so long and so slow that there is no obvious point at which Moscow’s plan would have to be “called”. Russia’s “poise” can become “move” at any point in an application process. During that process Moscow has ample scope for torpedoing a Ukrainian application both inside and outside Ukraine.

Inside Ukraine, the “application years” would offer multiple opportunities and occasions for political and economic manoeuvring to persuade whatever group holds office in Kyiv to withdraw its membership of the MAP, or to slow down or stop the reform processes demanded by the MAP. Ukraine has had a coup before and it may have one again, for example.

Outside Ukraine, Nato membership ultimately requires the unanimous approval of all 30 existing members of Nato. Moscow therefore has 30 lines of attack, persuasion, leverage, inducement or threat it can follow to obtain the single veto it needs to prevent Accession. The road is not new. Greece vetoed the Accession of Macedonia for many years until it obtained its desired result (a change in the name of Macedonia), and Turkey still blocks the Accession of Cyprus today.

Moscow’s credible threat of an invasion of Ukraine alone may be enough to persuade some Nato members to veto Ukraine’s accession. However a veto is obtained, an actual veto is likely to be redundant – Nato’s Council will not invite Ukraine to apply formally if it knows through private channels that one or more members will veto the application. Within Nato’s membership there will at any time be a range of views, from “expansionist zealots” to “cautious realists”, with states migrating between those extremes as administrations change and change about.

At present Mr Stoltenberg is certainly the chief zealot, while Mr Erdogan is probably the chief realist. Washington likes to appear as a zealot, but acts as a realist. Germany’s position is up for grabs. The prospect of granting Ukraine an Article 5 Assistance Guarantee may be expected to freeze the blood of every Nato realist, and even the zealots might think twice. Moscow will be able to use its proven ability to deploy overwhelming force against Ukraine to chill Nato blood even further.

In reality Moscow probably does not need to wave the big (and illegal) stick of invasion to obtain a veto. Within a large and noisy diplomatic world, over a period of many years, it may reasonably expect to find any number of pressure points it can push in private to obtain one or more promises of an article 10 veto. If I had to make a prediction I would say that one or more of Germany, the US and the UK will be quietly willing to commit, in private, to veto Ukraine’s Nato membership.

In sum, what Moscow needs is time, and lots of it. Which leads us to its list of demands. A sound way to look at that list is to borrow from Winston Churchill, and to describe them as a desire, wrapped in a hope inside a pipedream.

The desire lies in Item 6 on the list – the non-accession of Ukraine to Nato. If my logic above is right then Item 6 will be won by default rather than by treaty. The hope lies in Item 5 – a mutual agreement to keep intermediate-range missiles out of the borderlands. The pipedream is in Item 4 – military withdrawal to 1997’s dispositions. The rest of the Items are bland verbiage to which anyone could agree, and are in the list in order to have something on which the parties can, ultimately, agree and hold a press briefing to de-escalate tension and move on.

Moscow’s desire has, in practice, been achieved. What will follow is a long slow process of discussion on its hopes and dreams, to buy time in which to persuade the swithering middle of Ukraine’s voters that life inside a new Russian “federation” is better than life outside the European Union.

A key feature in that Union’s development is that the security treaty (the North Atlantic Treaty, DoB 1949) pre-dated the first economic treaty (the European Coal and Steel Community, DoB 1950), and also long predated the real birth of the Union with The European Economic Community (DoB 1957). Along the way an attempt to build security into the structure (the European Defence Community) was still-born in 1954.

In Russia’s case, the defence treaty is the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which came into its present form in 2002. Where security leads, economies will follow.

Moscow may not want to bring the whole of Ukraine into its future security-political-economic orbit. An unfortunate side-effect of 2021 has been the fuelling of near-nazi Ukrainian national feeling among Ukraine nationalists. With clear (and painful) memories of the long Ukrainian insurrection after 1945 Moscow may prefer that Ukraine’s western oblasts stay out of a new federated union with Russia.

A clear and successful precedent for that result is available – in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia – and a clear and democratic road lies open towards it. At some point in the future Ukraine would be manoeuvred into holding an oblast-by-oblast vote on whether to face east or west. The resulting division of opinion will be shaped like a horseshoe, with a Ukrainian rump-state based on Lviv, and a pro-Russian state wrapped around its south and east, running from Moldova along the shores of the Black Sea, up the Dnepr river to the border of Belarus. Brussels would be left to decide for itself whether it could stomach the accession of new-Ukraine to the European Union, or whether to leave it as a corrupt and politically toxic borderland. Russian Ukraine will form a new state which will federate with Moscow inside the CSTO and its economic children.

All but one component parts of this strategy are now all in place: the missing component is time, which, it seems, Moscow has now acquired.

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