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The Russian delegation arriving for the talks in Geneva on January 10, 2022

Completely different approaches Political scientist Igor Zevelev breaks down Russia’s security talks with the U.S. and NATO

Source: Meduza
The Russian delegation arriving for the talks in Geneva on January 10, 2022
The Russian delegation arriving for the talks in Geneva on January 10, 2022
Denis Balibouse / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s week of security talks with the U.S., NATO, and the OSCE wrapped up on Thursday, January 13. The meetings took place amid ongoing international concern over Russia concentrating troops near its border with Ukraine. However, the talks didn’t result in any agreements, as each party refused to budge on key issues. Russia has demanded an array of security guarantees, including that NATO rule out membership for Ukraine and Georgia. But both the alliance and Washington insist that Moscow has no say in the matter. For Meduza, political scientist Igor Zevelev breaks down why this week’s talks failed to produce results and where there may be room for negotiations.

Igor Zevelev

Political scientist, PhD

In Russia and in the West, completely different narratives are emerging with regard to what is currently happening in Moscow’s relationship with Washington and Brussels. Western countries, first and foremost the United States, are calling this a dialogue, while the Russian side prefers to describe the diplomatic meetings as negotiations. The difference in terminology reflects fundamentally different approaches. Western countries do not accept Russia’s key proposals to approve legally binding provisions to halt NATO expansion and stop deploying strike weapons near Russia’s borders. From the West’s point of view, the purpose of the dialogue is to de-escalate tensions near the Ukrainian border. And from Russia’s point of view, the negotiations aren’t about that at all: they’re about security guarantees for Russia. These are completely different approaches. 

The U.S. and NATO express the opinion that dialogue with Russia is necessary right now to prevent a “Russian military invasion of Ukraine.” Both Western countries and NATO see the concentration of Russian armed forces near the Ukrainian border as a specific crisis that needs to be de-escalated. That’s why they agreed to these meetings. The U.S. wouldn’t want new tensions to arise in Europe when the entire global strategy of President Biden’s administration is focused on fierce competition with China. A new hotbed of tension in Europe — in relations with Russia — is completely inconvenient for the Americans right now. They would like to put Russia on a far shelf and turn their focus to other regions. But Russia is completely dissatisfied with the place America has given it. To continue with the analogy of the far shelf, Russia is claiming to be one of the drivers of the train, and not a passenger who’s been put in an uncomfortable and somewhat unsafe seat.

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Nevertheless, it’s currently very possible to launch fruitful negotiations with regard to two aspects. The first is an agreement on where intermediate- and short-range missiles can and cannot be deployed. In fact, this is continuation of the treaty on the elimination of intermediate- and short-range missiles, which the United States withdrew from after accusing Russia of violating it. The second very real set of agreements that the U.S. and NATO are prepared to discuss — and this would be in Russia’s interests — is the renewal of agreements to limit troop concentrations and to stop conducting large-scale military exercises near certain borders. These are difficult issues, but it’s possible to reach agreements on them. 

As for the fundamental issues, that is, to abandon the formal expansion of NATO and the deployment of strike weapons near Russian borders, it seems to me that this is unrealistic right now. I think that the Russian side understands that the Americans and NATO members won’t agree to this. They will not promise that Georgia and Ukraine will never join NATO and they can’t abandon the alliance’s “open door policy.” Although, at the same time, all sides understand that in practical terms, NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia won’t be on the agenda in the near future. Russia isn’t worried about their formal membership to NATO, so much as about the noticeable military presence of the U.S. and NATO on the territory of Ukraine without full membership. And this is exactly what Russia declares is a threat to its national security. 

Why the Russian side put forward such conditions, even though it knows that NATO won’t agree to them, is a mystery. I think that only with the passage of time will we finally understand why this was done. But one reason is clear right now: Russia’s desire to point out issues that have been worrying it for a long time, and Western countries’ refusal to discuss them. Even without hoping that such radical proposals would be accepted immediately, Russia has ensured that its security concerns caused by NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of strike systems near borders with Russia were heard. 

Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion have been voiced since the mid-1990s. When there were several waves of NATO expansion, Russia also expressed its concerns. Therefore, the question itself is not new. But attempting to reverse this in the form of agreements and direct legal obligations on the part of the West — that’s a first.

We can’t find historical equivalents for the dialogue and negotiations happening now for several reasons. The first is that Russia published the text of the draft agreements with NATO and the U.S. on mutual security guarantees before the start of the negotiations. The second is that Moscow said, through Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, that the published drafts aren’t a menu that you can choose from. Ryabkov said that the Western side can only accept the Russian proposals as a whole. There are no such precedents. This provokes the question: what then are the negotiations about? Negotiations are when you make concessions here and we make concessions there. And in this case, one party, Russia, has set conditions such that the result is not negotiations, but rather “yes or no,” and that’s it. This is unprecedented. 

We don’t know if Russia will remove its troops from the borders with Ukraine. But I think that in about a week we will hear an important announcement from Moscow regarding the results of these three rounds of talks in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna, which took place [earlier this week], and we’ll find out what Russia’s next steps are. What Putin told the members of the Foreign Ministry’s collegium back in November, namely, to maintain “tension” with Western countries, remains a possibility. Everyone is anxiously awaiting Russia’s next steps. I would venture to guess that Russia will announce that it will undertake a military-technical response related to the deployment of the latest weapons systems, primarily supersonic delivery vehicles, in geographic regions that are rather sensitive for the West. 

Interview by Sasha Sivtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart