US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have just sat down for the third meeting in Geneva for what is probably the last round of meetings in the first phase of the Nato expansion crisis to see if they can find any common ground.
Both men opened with “we don't have much hope for progress” but at least they are talking. This round that opened with a meeting in Geneva on January 10 between US Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will come to an end next week when Blinken says he will hand over the formal letter with the written response to the eight-point list of demands in December.
Everyone agrees that the two sides could reach some sort of agreement on all the points on the list except the “no Nato expansion” article. And both sides have signalled they won’t budge on that point.
So it seems pretty clear that this crisis will escalate as Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly thought this through in detail and I’m sure he has a lot of nasty surprises in store, as he won’t back down and is determined to force a solution.
Russia has already started moving troops into Belarus ahead of unscheduled military exercises there in February, and the Kremlin has just sent naval craft from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea for more exercises; these will arrive in the next 10 days.
On the flip side Blinken said while in Kyiv on Tuesday the US will give Ukraine an additional $200mn for weapons, the UK flew cargo planes with more tank-busting missiles to Kyiv this week and yesterday Washington gave the Baltics and Czechs permission to sell Kyiv more weapons too.
We are now into a classic escalation strategy and Lavrov was already complaining about the West “pumping Ukraine full of weapons” before the news of this week’s deliveries.
The rhetoric has ratcheted up too. Russia has repeated over and over that it has no intension of invading Ukraine, but continues to make threatening military movements. The Belarusian exercises clearly threaten an invasion of Ukraine over its northern border, which allows it to take Kyiv as it comes in behind the Dnieper river, the main and difficult obstacle in the path of any forces invading over Ukraine’s eastern border.
Blinken upped the ante while in Kyiv, saying that Russia could invade “at any time.” US President Joe Biden went further later the same day, saying: “I think Putin is moving in.” Blinken went even further the next day in Berlin, listing Russia’s aggressive military actions in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova and highlighting that Putin told Bush in 2003 that “Ukraine is not a real country.”
Positioning and domestic politics
The problem with all these comments is it appears to be more about positioning in the current talks than actually preparations for war. Sources in Kyiv and Moscow report complete calm. There is no propaganda build-up in Russia that would be needed to sell an invasion to the people and the mood in Kyiv is equally calm: no troop movements, no calling up reservists, no media blitz to get the people ready. In fact Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was on TV yesterday to reassure Ukrainians there is no war coming. As bne IntelliNews has reported, the warnings of an invasion have almost all been generated by the US intelligence briefing the US press, but have not been borne out by reports from the ground.
That is not to say there is not a danger. Analysts say that Putin is using a compellence strategy where one state demands something from another, but has to back that up with a creditable threat of violence for the strategy to work.
One aspect of this story that I think has had little attention is the role that US domestic politics plays in the Biden administration’s game plan. The problem is that after two decades the demonising of Putin has become a very useful tool in US and European domestic politics, but it also means that doing any deal with Putin at all is a very difficult sell at home.
It was UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown who first made use of this tool, demonising Putin to make himself look strong at a time when he was having political problems of his own. Since then it has become standard practice to the point where any accommodation is heavily criticised. Germany’s stance on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a classic example and Merkel has been condemned as a quisling for pushing the construction of the pipeline through.
Brown’s assumption (and everyone after him) was: you can demonise Putin at no political cost as Europe has little business other than commodity imports, so there is no need to maintain good relations with Russia and you can say what you like. Biden went as far as saying Putin was “a killer” which was a diplomatic faux pas, even if he genuinely believes it.
But that is no longer true. Now the West needs to do a deal with Putin, otherwise he will keep turning the screws which will make it progressively harder to do a deal later. Hence the invasion hype buys the Washington some wiggle room.
As bne IntelliNews has reported extensively, an actually full blown invasion and annexation of Ukraine is highly unlikely, as it would be extremely difficult to do and even more difficult to hold. That means when the invasion doesn't happen, now specifically slated for February by the US press, the White House can take credit for preventing it by being tough – an argument they can use when defending whatever deals it cuts with the Kremlin in the meantime. The “planned invasion” of Ukraine will conveniently come in the midst of the second round of diplomacy when either a deal will be struck or we will go to war with Russia – hopeful only a new Cold War if it comes to that.
Herding the EU cats
The White House has a second problem to contend with: Europe’s reluctance to get on board with such a hard line. The problem can be boiled down to the fact that Nato sees Russia as an “enemy”, as it was specifically set up to fight the USSR and Russia took over that mantel in 1991 – a point that Lavrov made in his press conferences after the Blinken meeting. The US sees Russia as a “rival” and not a particularly powerful one, but strong enough to be a royal pain in the neck. But Europe sees Russia as a “business opportunity” as well as a very useful source of inputs.
It was telling that between his meeting with Zelenskiy in Kyiv and that with Lavrov in Geneva today Blinken stopped off in Berlin to meet with representatives of Germany, France and the UK to co-ordinate their response and present a united front.
However, that effort is not going well, especially after a government leak to Handelsblatt reported that Berlin has taken off the table excluding Russia from the SWIFT messaging service. In general, Germany has advocated extremely mild sanctions that largely target individuals as it tries to find a middle path between curbing Russia’s worst aggressions and maintaining its business ties with its large eastern neighbour.
Biden also let slip in his presser that the White House has also gamed out a graduated response to any Russian actions, asking rhetorically what the response would be to a “minor incursion” and suggesting the US would pull its punches in this case. The same idea of graded responses is enshrined in the “sanctions from hell” bill: one of the clauses to the list of 13 banks that could be sanctioned in the event of a military attack says that “at least three banks have to be sanctioned” if these sanctions are implemented.
That comment elicited an angry tweet from Zelenskiy, who said: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”
The disunity amongst the Nato members is to Russia’s advantage and makes the chances of a deal more likely and the chance of war less so. However, things remain up in the air.
While I was writing this the Blinken-Lavrov meeting ended and Lavrov gave a short press conference. The meeting was inconclusive, with Lavrov saying nothing was decided and that the Kremlin is still waiting for the US letter before deciding what to do next; however, he did call the talks “fruitful” and “meaningful”, so there is still hope for a deal.
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