Ukraine crisis: what next after a week of talks and tension?

A Russian service member is seen atop of a T-72B3 main battle tank during military drills at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region, Russia December 20, 2021. REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov/File Photo

Jan 14 (Reuters) – A burst of East-West diplomacy this week produced no breakthrough on the Ukraine crisis and tensions are arguably higher than before, with Ukraine suffering a massive cyberattack and Russia rehearsing troop movements.

But the talks have clarified areas for possible negotiation, albeit on a far more limited set of topics than Russia has demanded.

Here are some key takeaways from the meetings in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, which took place at a moment when more than 100,000 Russian troops are poised within striking distance of the Ukrainian border.

NO ONE WALKED OUT: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had raised the possibility that the talks could collapse after a single session, but they ran their course. Officials on all sides said they were tough and frank, but cordial.

DIPLOMACY CONTINUES, AT LEAST FOR NOW: Even while complaining of a “dead end”, Ryabkov and other Russian officials said Moscow had not given up on diplomacy. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Russia was awaiting a point-by-point written response to two proposed security treaties it presented to the West last month. He said he expected to see such a response in the next week or so.

RUSSIA WANTS TO DEAL DIRECT WITH WASHINGTON: Lavrov said it was clear that the chances of agreement would depend on the U.S. side, accusing it of dragging out the process by involving the unwieldy 57-nation OSCE security forum where the third leg of this week’s talks took place. Russia wants to show itself as a global power on an equal footing with Washington, but the United States says it will not allow decisions to be taken over the heads of Ukraine and its NATO partners. So the format and timescale of any further talks might not be easy to agree.

ARMS CONTROL COULD OFFER SOME ROOM FOR COMPROMISE: Both sides maintained their “red lines” in the talks. Russia said it was “absolutely mandatory” that Ukraine never join NATO and repeated its demand for the alliance to remove troops and military infrastructure from former Communist countries that joined it after the Cold War. The United States called these demands “non-starters”, and NATO said all 30 of its members lined up behind that position at Wednesday’s meeting in Brussels. However, the U.S. and NATO offered talks on arms control, missile deployments and confidence-building measures such as limits on military exercises – things that form part of Russia’s wish list and were not on the table until now.

RUSSIA IS NOT READY TO DIAL DOWN TENSIONS: Moscow’s talk of the need for dialogue has been interspersed for weeks with unspecified threats, a strategy that has kept the West guessing about its true intentions and brought the U.S. and its allies to the negotiating table. Russia extended that pattern on Friday with snap military inspections in which troops in its far east were practising long-distance deployments. It denies preparing to invade Ukraine, but Ryabkov said on Thursday that military specialists were providing options to Putin in case the situation worsened. Russia has also threatened “military-technical measures” that will undermine the West’s security if its demands go unheeded. Lavrov said on Friday that would entail deploying military hardware in new locations. Moscow has consistently sought to raise the stakes, with Ryabkov more than once comparing the situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the world came close to nuclear war. Meanwhile Washington says its intelligence agencies believe Russia may try to fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian military intelligence says Russian special services are preparing “provocations”. Russia did not immediately comment on suspicions of its involvement in the cyberattack on Ukraine, in which messages were posted on government websites telling Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst”.

PUTIN HAS YET TO GIVE HIS VERDICT: Having ramped up military tensions for months and said he will insist on legally binding security guarantees from the West, Putin needs to show Russians he has scored significant wins. He could already argue that he has forced Russia’s opponents to listen to its grievances after ignoring them for decades, as he maintains. And he could claim further progress if security talks produced a commitment, for example, not to station NATO missiles in Ukraine. He will not get a treaty ruling out Ukrainian membership of NATO – but no one expects that to happen anyway in the foreseeable future.

(This story corrected to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not Ryabkov) in ‘Diplomacy continues’ section)


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