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As tensions simmer, what’s on the agenda at the U.S.-Russia security talks?

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attends a conference in Beijing on nuclear non-proliferation in 2019.
(Thomas Peter / Pool photo)

Russian diplomats are meeting this week with officials from the United States and its NATO allies for security negotiations in three European cities.

Russian and U.S. negotiators launched the talks in Geneva on Monday. They will be followed by Russia-NATO talks in Brussels and a meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Here’s a look at the agenda of the security talks and the main issues of contention:

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Russian invasion fears

The massing of Russian troops and equipment near Ukraine’s border has caused worries in Kyiv and in the West that Moscow could be planning to launch an invasion.

Moscow has denied such an intention and, in turn, accused Ukrainian authorities of planning an offensive to reclaim control over territories in eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists — allegations that Ukraine has rejected.

On upcoming Russia talks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken says it’s hard to make diplomatic progress when there’s ‘a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.’

President Biden twice discussed the Russian troop buildup with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, warning that Moscow would face “severe consequences,” including unprecedented economic and financial sanctions, if it attacked its neighbor.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has backed the separatist rebellion that started the same year in the country’s east, where more than seven years of fighting has killed more than 14,000 people. The West has responded with sanctions that have battered the Russian economy but failed to persuade Moscow to change course.

Russia’s security demands

Putin has described the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and the alliance deploying weapons there as a “red line” for Moscow. The Kremlin demanded that Washington and its allies make a binding pledge excluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine, Georgia or any other ex-Soviet nations.

Moscow has also demanded that the U.S. and its allies make a commitment not to deploy weapons or conduct any military activities in Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

The Kremlin has presented a draft Russia-U.S. security treaty and a blueprint for a Russia-NATO agreement as a starting point for this week’s negotiations. They would oblige the alliance not to station any troops in areas where they weren’t present in 1997 — before NATO moved to incorporate former Soviet bloc countries and ex-Soviet republics.

Moscow’s proposals also suggest a freeze on patrols by Russian and U.S. naval ships and bombers near each other’s frontiers. In addition, they call for efforts to reduce the risk of incidents involving Russia and NATO warships and aircraft, primarily in the Baltic and the Black Seas; a reduction in the scope of military drills; greater transparency and other confidence-building measures.

While Russian state media seek to whip up anti-Western sentiment, the Russian public isn’t spoiling for a fight.

U.S. and NATO reaction

The U.S. and its allies have roundly rejected the demand for NATO not to admit Ukraine or any other new members, emphasizing that a key alliance principle is that membership is open to any qualifying country and that no outsiders have veto power.

While Ukraine and Georgia aren’t yet ready for NATO membership and have little prospect of being invited to join soon, the Western allies insist that NATO’s doors must remain open to them. In 2008, NATO promised to eventually embrace the two nations, although it hasn’t offered them a specific road map to membership.

Even though the allies firmly rejected a halt to NATO’s expansion as a nonstarter, Washington and NATO say they are ready to discuss arms control, confidence-building measures, greater transparency and risk reduction if Russia takes a constructive stance.

U.S. officials said they are open to discussions on curtailing possible future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and putting limits on American and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe if Russia is willing to back off on Ukraine.

At the same time, the White House has urged Russia to help create a positive environment for the upcoming talks by pulling back its troops from areas near Ukraine. Moscow has dismissed the suggestion, saying it can deploy its forces wherever it deems necessary on its own territory and describing the buildup as a response to “hostile” moves by NATO.

Russia and NATO have been staging military exercises designed to confront a threat from the other, raising the danger of an accidental collision or misunderstanding that could provoke actual war, European security analysts warn.

Time limits

Putin has called the negotiations with the U.S. a “positive” move but said he wants quick results, warning the West against trying to drown Russia’s demands in “idle talk.”

Asked during a news conference last month if he could guarantee that Russia won’t invade Ukraine, Putin responded angrily and said the West “must give us guarantees and give them immediately, now.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who heads the Russian delegation at the security talks, described the demand for guarantees that NATO won’t expand to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as “absolutely essential” and warned that the U.S. refusal to discuss it would make further talks pointless.

“We are going there not with a hand outstretched but with a precisely formulated task that we need to solve on conditions that we formulated,” Ryabkov said. He warned that Russia wouldn’t make any concessions under threats and pressure and said the talks could end after the first round if the U.S. and its allies were uncooperative.

The Kremlin’s blunt demands combined with a push for quick results have fueled U.S. suspicions that Moscow could make unrealistic requests just to see the talks collapse and then use it as a pretext for aggressive action. Russian diplomats have rejected the claim.

Ukraine’s armed forces have struggled to improve their battle readiness since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

‘Military-technical measures’

While Moscow has denied planning to attack Ukraine, Putin has warned that he would be forced to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West stonewalled his security demands.

He didn’t elaborate beyond saying that the Russian response in that scenario “could be diverse” and “will depend on what proposals our military experts submit to me.”

Kremlin foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov said Putin told Biden that Russia would act just as the U.S. would act if it saw offensive weapons deployed next to its borders.

Putin has noted that the new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile could give Russia a previously unseen precision strike potential if fitted to warships deployed to neutral waters. The launch of a number of Zircons in late December heralded the completion of tests for the new weapon, which Putin said flies at nine times the speed of sound, with a range of more than 620 miles.

While voicing concern that NATO could potentially use Ukrainian territory for the deployment of missiles capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes, Putin noted that Zircon would give Russia a similar capability.

“It would also need just five minutes to reach those who issue orders,” Putin said.


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