Europe

Is this a sign of hope? Ukraine discussions continue despite Russian warnings.

Fears of a Russian strike on its neighbor grew after the US and NATO rejected the Kremlin's security demands for Ukraine last week.

Fears of a Russian strike on its neighbor grew after the US and NATO rejected the Kremlin’s security demands for Ukraine last week.

Instead of sending armored armadas across the Ukrainian border, as the US and its allies feared, Moscow sent diplomatic letters to Western capitals about an international accord that the Kremlin regards as a compelling rationale for its position in the stalemate.

Despite saying a month ago that he sought a speedy response to Russian demands and warned that Moscow would not accept “idle dialogue,” President Vladimir Putin suggested on Wednesday that he was open to fresh talks with Washington and NATO.

And that provides a ray of optimism. Despite the fact that over 100,000 Russian troops remain near Ukraine and weeks of discussions have yielded no big concessions from either side, Russia and the West continue to talk, which some experts see as a basis for cautious optimism.

“On the one hand, Putin fired rhetorical barbs at the West and emphasized perceived slights; on the other hand, he left open the possibility of talking in greater depth about at least some of the issues where the West has been willing to engage,” said Jeff Rathke, a former US diplomat and president of Johns Hopkins University’s American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Rathke added, “We’re kind of where we were a few weeks ago.” “Putin hasn’t ruled out any possibilities. He hasn’t ruled out negotiations, but he hasn’t toned down his venomous language.”

On the most important problems, Russia and the West remain at odds, and it’s unclear how a solution could be struck. The Kremlin’s new emphasis on diplomacy, on the other hand, appears to reflect Putin’s intention of achieving his objectives through discussions while using the deployment of troops near Ukraine as leverage.

“Russia will retain a harsh stance while hinting that it is open to discussions,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, who leads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies in Moscow and closely monitors Kremlin thinking. “Such complicated deals aren’t reached in a relaxing environment over a long period of time.”

Russia insists it has no plans to invade its neighbor, but it wants NATO to deny Ukraine and other former Soviet republics membership and promise not to put weapons there. NATO forces in Eastern Europe should also be reduced.

During a series of meetings last month, the US and its allies explicitly rejected those requests as “nonstarters,” but Moscow sought a written response, stoking fears that it intended a formal rejection of its demands to use as a basis for sending troops into Ukraine.

On January 26, the US and NATO delivered their response to Moscow, ruling out any compromises on Russia’s core requests but leaving the door open for discussions on other topics such as offensive missile deployment limitations and increased military openness.

Putin has yet to respond to the Western suggestions, but his diplomats have cautioned that if the West continues to ignore Moscow’s fundamental objectives, progress on those matters will be difficult.

The impasse has fanned worries of impending conflict, and in a phone discussion with Ukraine’s president last week, US President Joe Biden warned that there is a “clear probability” that Russia may invade in February.

For the time being, Moscow appears to have chosen a diplomatic path, and US officials have toned down their rhetoric about “imminence” in recent days. The United States, on the other hand, has not backed down from its concerns.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed new letters to his Western counterparts on Monday, rebutting NATO’s position that each country has the right to select which alliances it joins. He claimed that the alliance’s growth violates its responsibility not to bolster its security at the expense of Russia.

In documents signed at summits of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the major trans-Atlantic security grouping, the United States and its allies have agreed to uphold the “indivisibility of security,” according to Lavrov.

“Security for all or no security for anyone,” Lavrov wrote, adding that his ministry would now wait for formal responses to his letter before advising Putin on next steps.

The letter exchange might set the stage for a long series of obscure debates about differing interpretations of OSCE treaties, and Putin signaled willingness to engage in such debates.

The Russian president said Tuesday, in his first public words on the dispute since late December, that while the West opposes Russia’s fundamental demands, diplomatic attempts should continue. “I hope that we will eventually find a solution,” Putin said, “though we recognize that it will not be simple.”

Putin’s calm stance contrasted with his December comment that he wants a speedy response from the West and that if the US and its allies continue to ignore Moscow’s concerns, he may order unspecified “military-technical steps.”

In his remarks last week, Putin said only that “we need to find a solution to safeguard the interests and security of all parties, including Ukraine, European nations, and Russia.”

Along with meetings with the US and NATO, Russia also held separate talks on a stalled 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine. A meeting of presidential envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany in Paris did not yield quick results, but they will meet again in Berlin later this month.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he’s open to visiting Russia to help alleviate tensions after speaking with Putin three times since last Friday, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also revealed intentions to visit Moscow soon.

Russia would most certainly continue to flex its military strength to demonstrate its resolve, according to Lukyanov. He said that Russia could easily afford to station soldiers near Ukraine for an extended period of time and that a series of drills will be conducted to keep pressure on the West.

“Troops may arrive and depart,” Lukyanov explained. “It’s relatively inexpensive, and it fits within the budget for combat training that has already been set aside.”

The drills include large-scale joint war games with Russia’s ally Belarus, which shares a northern border with Ukraine, and Lukyanov projected that Russia would strengthen its defense ties with Belarus.

Belarus’ autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko has already offered to host Russian nuclear weapons after being sanctioned by the West for his crackdown on opposition.

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