By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

On January 21rst a 90-minute discussion took place in Geneva between US Foreign Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with the aim to exchange views concerning the possibility to settle the crisis around Ukraine and find an answer to Russia’s demand for a comprehensive security guarantee. A close look at both press conferences leaves the impression however that both Foreign Ministers were “talking at cross purposes,” while at the same time both diplomats at least “formally” reaffirmed the intent that the dialogue should continue also in the future.

A careful study of US Foreign State Secretary Biden’s press conference shows however that he reiterated several times the threat which the US government continues to hammer out in these days, namely that Russia is perceived by the US and NATO as the ”aggressor” and that it will have to face consequences if it invades Ukraine. “I conveyed the position of the United States and our European allies and partners that we stand firmly with Ukraine in support of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have been clear. If any Russian military forces move across Ukraine’s border, that’s renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our partners and allies.” Blinken at the same time underlined that this “is the choice that Russia faces now. It can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences and international condemnation. The United States and our allies and partners in Europe stand ready to meet Russia on either path and we will continue to stand with Ukraine.”

Yet Blinken kept stating several times that the US will do everything to “prop” up Ukraine’s military forces. And that the US is working closely with allies to plan for “reinforcement of NATO.” He mentioned that the US has delivered weapons worth $ 650 Mio to Ukraine and is committed to do more. (This is very much in contrast to the principles that were stated for example in the 1997 NATO- Russia Council Founding act.) Hence, the message which Blinken and the US administration try to send out is extremely dangerous. While formally Blinken kept telling that Russia will receive a “written answer to its request for an enhanced security order,” he seems to show no interest at all to respond to the stated concerns of the Russians.

In a separate press conference in Geneva Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was very adamant when he was asked by a journalist from BBC, to what extent Russia considered Ukraine “as its own sphere of influence.”  Lavrov stated: “We have no claim on spheres of influence, but what NATO does in respect to Ukraine shows clearly that NATO considers Ukraine as its sphere of influence.” He referred to the agreement reached between him and Blinken, namely that “Blinken had told him to prepare a written response to Russia’s written draft of a treaty that demands a response from the US and from NATO.”  Being asked about the Helsinki agreements of the 1970ies and the offer of a European security treaty in 2009, which ran aground (after the Bukarest Summit 2008 where NATO had hefrained from calling for a fixed date of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO) he replied: “Our experience of working with our Western colleagues on European security issues contains abundant examples when promises were made but not kept.  I have already quoted the words said by the then US- President Gerald Ford immediately after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. Celebrating the occasion he said: ‘History will judge this Conference not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow- not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.’ Our American and West European colleagues and NATO members are not very good at this. Today we heard some of the same arguments about the freedom to choose alliances and military unions. We quoted some documents in which this freedom was defined by the need to avoid any steps that could strengthen the security of one state at the expense of another. We asked Anthony Blinken and his team to explain how they interpret this part of the commitment that the OSCE adopted at the political level and repeatedly affirmed. This was an interim meeting. US Secretary  of State Antony Blinken said that he was satisfied with the exchange of views, which would help them next week (it was emphasized several times ) to present a written response to us.”

In reply to a question how Russia’s Foreign Ministry will respond to what the US State Department had put together in a statement for the Geneva meeting and to what extent increased weapon supplies to Ukraine from the US and the UK could impact the talks, Lavrov replied: „The papers the State Department prepared specially for today’s meeting are unreadable. We have a special unit headed by the Ministry’s official which is supposed to study all that. The response has already been made. I don’t think any more comments are needed. It will suffice to look it through, open to any page and realize that nothing in it withstand critical scrutiny. In most cases they are pure lies.”

“(…) Regarding threats, we discussed Ukraine. Our US colleagues once again wanted to give top priority to the issues on the Russia- Ukraine border. They tried to make everything dependent on the need for ‘de- escalation’. This has already become a mantra. We finished by agreeing that next week we will be given written answers to all our proposals. (…) We do not exclude that all that hysteria whipped up by our Western colleagues is intended to at least distract from the Kiev regime’s determination to totally sabotage the Minsk agreements, if not provoke Ukraine to undertake some military actions in Donbass (…)We have answered all the questions asked. Our Western colleagues admit that this is Russian territory; however ‘we have assembled too many troops.’    Whereas in the same breath they say that whatever the Americans do with their troops in Europe is none of our business. Antony Blinken and I spoke frankly about this. He agreed that the dialogue should be more substantive. I hope cooler heads will prevail, although there are no guarantees…”

Lavrov at the end spoke about Russia’s concerns that “weapons are flooding Ukraine from the US and hundreds of military instructors are flooding into the Ukraine and that the EU does not want to stand behind.” He underlined that he had told Blinken that the US should exercise its influence on Kiev’s role to put the Minsk agreements through, qualifying the discussion in Geneva as “constructive” and that Russia waits for a written response in respect to their demand for a European Security Structure.

Valdai Discussion Club: European Security Structure at stake

A very interesting insight was given by a one-hour seminar that was hosted by Valdai Discussion Club and moderated by Fjodor Lukyanov (Valdai Club Research director) under the title: “A three move game: Will it be possible to avoid Zugzwang?”

The Seminar (19. January, following the meetings in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, began with a statement by Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergej Ryabakov, who qualified the European security situation as “critical,” because the US and NATO are using the Ukraine as leverage of pressure on Russia. In reference to the debate in Geneva, followed by the Brussels Russia -NATO debate and the OSCE, Ryabakov underlined that all these discussions helped to better understand the stance of each other. “We prefer to negotiate with the US – because there are too many stakeholders. Otherwise in Geneva we insisted on legally binding guarantees of non- expansion of NATO and deployment of offensive arms.”

“We need to get legally binding guarantees that all get back to the 1997 borders. …We are not ready to wait eternally and have a diplomatic and bureaucratic mess. We need a clear answer in writing.” Ryabakov further stressed that it is the fault of the US and NATO that the situation had become like this.

In respect to the previously held meetings in Geneva, between Russia and NATO, as well as Russia and the OSCE he noted that they had allowed for a better understanding of each other’s approaches and positions, adding that Moscow would prefer to negotiate primarily with the Americans because involving a wider range of countries in negotiations becomes “counterproductive.” He added that the Russian proposals imply legally binding guarantees that NATO won’t expand, won’t deploy offensive strike weapons near the borders of Russia and will return the alliance’s forces to their positioning in 1997. According to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister “the ball is now clearly on the side of the US, it was its assertive course that led to the current situation.”  He also added that the talk about Russia invading is a lot of speculation. “We ask the US to make Kiev implement the Minsk accord, to stop arming the Ukrainian troops, to stop setting up military basis.” He ended by stating that “the behavior of the US reminds me of the famous words of Talleyrand: ‘They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.’”

His statement was followed by one from the American political scientist, Prof.  John Mearsheimer from the Chicago University (who is familiar with the Valdai Discussion Club). Mearsheimer was somewhat pessimistic when he stated that “the crisis between US / Russia will not improve.” The main cause for the present crisis as he stated, “was Washington’s decision in 2008 to turn Ukraine into a western bulwark on the border with Russia.” He pointed out three aspects which would make this clear: 1.the US is interested to expand the EU eastwards, 2. to include the Ukraine into NATO and 3. they launched an orange revolution in Ukraine with the policy to make ‘Ukraine a western Bulwark’. “Russia said that this was unacceptable.”  In 2014 the crisis erupted in Ukraine, he noted and President “Biden’s administration continues to make Ukraine into a western bulwark.  They argue that Ukraine is ‘sovereign’ in respect to NATO and it is arming and training the Ukrainian military forces.”

Mearsheimer pointed to what he considers a real paradox, namely that “the US insists on the sovereign right of the Ukraine to join NATO, but would not tolerate a similar situation in its own hemisphere.” He emphasized that the “US does not recognize its own ‘Monroe Doctrine’ for Russia, according to which no distant power is allowed to form alliances in the Western Hemisphere.  According to the balance of power logic which is underpinning the ‘Monroe doctrine’, the US refuses to accept that Russia has a ‘Monroe Doctrine’ on its own. “Russian leaders have emphasized that Biden’s policy is unacceptable and they are concerned that the Americans will drag out the discussion.  The Russians think about “asymmetrical tough responses”. He summed up his judgement by stating that “the Biden administration will not accommodate the Russians. The reason for this, according to Mearsheimer is:  1. American policy makes operations in the world based on “intense Russo-phobia”- where the “US is the good guy” and “Russia the bad guy”.  If we “make concessions to the Russians it implies to make concessions to Adolf Hitler” (sic). It’s all black and white. 2. The notion of an unlimited NATO expansion and that the Ukraine has the right to be in NATO is deeply and sacredly engrained into western thinking. 3. President Biden on the Homefront is in deep political trouble.  If he were to make concessions, he would be hit by Democrats and Republicans and pay a price. 4. The Americans fear that China will see this as a sign of weakness and move on Taiwan. In conclusion the “American intransigence is the order of the day.” He stated that he finds it hard “that we can avoid an action / reaction cycle” and quoted George Kennan who once had said that the “NATO expansion was the most fatal error in the entire Post- Cold War era.”

Malcolm Rifkind reflecting about “neutrality” as an option for Ukraine

Prof. Mearsheimer was followed by Malcolm Rifkind, former UK Secretary of Defense and Foreign affairs, who agreed with Kennan’s statement but also tried to explain what had happened during the last 30 years, including the Russian Crimean aggression, and the Georgia /south Ossetia war. What would have happened if there had not been NATO enlargement after 1997?” he asked. “The pressure came from the former satellite states. They were terrified and understood the motivation in Russia – “you control the Russian security by controlling Russian neighbors.”  In respect to Russia’s draft treaty proposal for which they expect a written answer, Rifkind stated, that he understood why they do what they do. That it’s one sided to say all NATO troops should withdraw; what about Russian troops from Crimea and Donbass. He further stated that he “was firmly opposed to get Ukraine integrated into NATO, as he was in respect to Georgia. The whole point is that of NATO Article 5.  I never believed that Great Britain, France and Germany would go to war with Russia.”

As a possible solution to the crisis Rifkind suggested: “In terms of Ukraine’s security there is an issue which should be seriously considered. Neutrality.  Like in Austria where the SU agreed to neutrality and to withdraw its troops. Another thing, if Russia wants to resolve the Ukraine issue, Putin must stop talking about Great Russia (out of date). The Russian empire had disappeared.”  During the discussion period, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabakov when being asked whether Russia is not under “Zugzwang” having assembled 100.000 troops on Russian territory near the Ukraine border replied: “There is no risk of a large scale war in Europe. We will not attack or strike or invade. It has been said dozens of times. We see the threat of the Ukraine becoming more integrated into NATO without even being “in” NATO (…) “The US wants to stir the crisis. We did not undertake anything. We only conduct exercises”. He kept repeating that there is no reason to be “preoccupied.” But clearly stated that a formula of having a “moratorium” concerning NATO expansion would not be what Russia wants: “We need legally binding guarantees against NATO expansion. We won’t be satisfied with such formula.”

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