by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN – The high-level U.S.-Russian talks held earlier this week in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov ended with each side indicating their openness to continue talking, despite no real belief the dialogue would result in any agreements. Regardless, Europe is teetering on the dual threat of a military invasion and a cunning diplomatic plan by Putin to divide the West.
Despite Russia’s claim that its extraordinary build-up of troops along the Ukrainian border is merely a domestic, military exercise, the duration and size of the operation marks it as the biggest such ‘exercise’ since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ryabkov has claimed, “We explained to our colleagues that we have no plans to attack. All the combat trainings of troops are carried out within our national territory, and there is no reason to fear any escalation scenario in this regard.”
Still, Russia had failed to notify its European neighbours of the supposed exercises prior to their large-scale movement and stationing on Ukraine’s border and has not indicated when the exercises will end. Few, if any, believe Russia’s claim that these are merely training exercises. Indeed, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has publicly declined to be drawn-in on setting deadlines for Russian de-escalation or diplomatic negotiations while concomitantly using the presence of Russia’s massive attack force as a continued threat, “There are no clear deadlines here, no one is setting them. There is just the Russian position that we will not be satisfied with the endless dragging out of this process,” quipped Peskov. Such tactics are consistent with the Russian Federation’s dual use of diplomacy and threat of conflict in negotiating with the West.
Russia Copies Trump’s Tactic of Diplomacy via Twitter – Only to Be Bested by a Polish Reply
While the bi-lateral negotiations were ongoing in Geneva Monday, the verified Russian Embassy in the UK Twitter Account released a statement from Lavrov asserting NATO has been an aggressor against Russia by becoming a “geopolitical project aimed at taking over territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation and the Soviet Union.”
In an acerbic response, Paweł Szrot, the Polish President’s Chief of Cabinet, responded during an interview on Polish radio Wednesday saying, “If minister Sergey Lavrov feels like an orphan after the Soviet Union – that is understandable. Nevertheless, Poland is not the USSR’s orphan and is a sovereign country.”
Following bilateral talks with the U.S. on Monday, NATO on Wednesday, then OSCE on Thursday, in an interview with Russia’s RTVI, Ryabkov said there was “no reason to schedule more talks with the Americans and NATO” because of what he characterised as their collective refusal to comply with Moscow’s demands to return to the status quo that existed in European security in 1997, before several former Soviet Republics joined or affiliated with NATO.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergeĭ Lavrov is schedule to give a press conference today in Moscow which is widely expected to ratchet-up tensions even further.
Putin Turned-the-Table on Biden Sewing Intra-Western Mistrust
Russia requested the bilateral meeting with the U.S. over tensions caused by their positioning a strike-force on Ukraine’s border as part of the Strategic Security Dialogue. The Strategic Security Dialogue, an initiative of U.S. President Joe Biden, took life during his June 2021 summit with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. When announced last year, Biden hailed his initiative to restart dialgue as “ensuring predictability,” reducing the risk of nuclear war, and setting the stage “for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” Little did Biden realise then that his personal initiative to reset U.S. relations with Russia would be wielded against him as a weapon on the issue of Ukraine instead of its intended purpose, “nuclear arms control and risk reduction“.
Putin’s request for a meeting to discuss Ukraine’s sovereignty and any potential threat to it by the Russian Federation, in a format that specifically excluded Ukraine and other involved stakeholders such as NATO, the OSCE and EU, was cunning – but it should have been seen for what it was. With it, Putin struck the first blow and to some significant extent, achieved his goal of creating discomfort amongst the Western allies and their transatlantic partner in the U.S. that the folly of the 1944 Yalta Conference would be repeated. European nations remain concerned that their transatlantic ally has a history of cutting deals with Russia that decided their future as sovereign States without their participation or consent. For convening a meeting in a divisive format, Point 1 goes to Putin.
Poland, which began its rotating tenure as Chair of the OSCE this week, drove the point home during the same radio interview in which they rebuked Lavrov’s claim they were Russia’s orphan. When Szrot spoke on Polish radio it cannot be mistaken that he did so at the behest of Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda. Reiterating Duda’s unequivocal statement that Poland would not “fulfil any agreements made without our participation,” Szrot signaled to Washington and Poland’s European allies in NATO, the OSCE and EU that there was growing concern that Biden had fallen into Putin’s trap by discussing a sovereign nation’s future without them and other stakeholders at the table. By meeting separately with the US, NATO and OSCE, and omitting EU dialogue, Russia claims they attempted diplomacy all while ensuring the formats they choose to adopt would necessarily mean failure. The score? 30-Love in Putin’s favour.
Unity is the Best Deterrent to Russian Aggression
In the lead-up to Russia’s various build-ups along Ukraine’s border during the last year there were other initiatives deployed by Putin to help sew the seeds of discontent and mistrust in the West. Germany, which unilaterally changed, if not dictated, European energy policy by shutting its nuclear power plants thus making it and Europe more reliant on Russian gas supplies, lobbied hard for the completion and opening of the NordStream 2 pipeline in 2021. Largely seen as Angela Merkel’s ‘swan song’, her success in getting Biden to waive sanctions against companies that cooperated with Russia in completing NordStream 2 shortly before her retirement, even against Congressional action and national security policy, drew sharp criticism from Ukraine and other European partners, not to mention domestic condemnation.
Still, Germany stood with Europe in refusing to sign-off on the opening of the NordStream 2 pipeline owing to Russia’s renewed aggression, despite the higher-costs and fuel insecurity that such a decision might invoke as Europe entered its cold winter months. Germany’s surprise stand of unity, even against its self-interest, demonstrated that unity is the best deterrent to Russian aggression. Russia announced it would reduce its troops near Ukraine’s border last autumn in response. Point to Europe! Score? 30–15, Russia.
Next came the weaponisation of migrants from the Middle East, flown to Russia’s lackey, Belarus, then trucked to the Polish border in an attempt to create division within Europe over migration and humanitarian assistance at the outset of winter snows. Poland remained ready to fulfil its obligations in international law, and uphold European values, by processing asylum claims, however, their keen observation that migrants themselves said they weren’t seeking asylum but wanted to emigrate to Germany laid bare the Belarus-Russian ruse of attempting to divide Europe over immigration and humanitarian policies. Poland still faces an ongoing struggle with many migrants still attempting to migrate to Germany based upon the false information fed to them by the Belarus State that Germany would “open a humanitarian corridor for their safe passage to Germany.” Here, the verdict is divided. Many in the EU praise Poland for their adherence to immigration law and in meeting their Treaty obligations to the EU and NATO. However, yesterday, the UNHCR and European Officials lashed-out at Latvia, Lithuania and Poland for their border controls. Here, Russia and Europe were at a draw.
Multilateral Talks are Necessary
While ‘shuttle diplomacy’ can be effective in breaking the log-jam of protracted conflicts, it has proven almost useless when urgency is at issue. While the U.S. has repeatedly claimed that it won’t cut deals without its partners, such pronouncements fall short of ensuring that all are concurrently seated at the negotiating table. Moreover, it has yet to assuage fears within Europe.
The bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Russia ended this week without measurable progress. Each side vocalising pessimism about resolution. Fears heightened following the subsequent OSCE-Russia meeting on Thursday. Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, left the sessions in a dour mood, saying, Russia’s “drumbeat of war is sounding loud and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill. We have to take this very seriously. We have to prepare for the eventuality that there could be an escalation”.
Of course, Russia’s plans would be severely stymied if the stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic, but more importantly Ukraine, resolved to act in real unison. Such a path provides the only real hope for a durable diplomatic solution to be reached and would severely undercut Putin’s penchant for dividing stakeholders while fanning the flames of uncertainty and mistrust. Additionally, reducing delays that would inevitable arise as the EU, NATO and U.S. confer between separate negotiating rounds with Russia would also prove an effective counter to Putin’s plans of using time as a destabilising force. Recent history underscores how Russia has exploited delays and negotiations to solidify their position by keeping their opponents at bay, allowing stress to undermine partnerships while uncertainty and division solidify destabilization as it has in Russia’s previous land-grabs in Moldova and Georgia.
Given the language, at least, Europe has managed to hold-firm and show resolve. How enduring it is remains to be seen. At this point, little has changed and the score is tied in a Deuce. Europe must break the cycle of Russian tantrums being rewarded as a sober look at recent history will show that it has only encouraged more miscreant behaviour that threatens Europe, world stability and undermines the rules-based world-order which is humanity’s last, best hope to avoid war.
Uncertainty Over Germany’s Resolve for Unity
The ‘wild card’ in all of this remains Germany.
During Merkel’s long tenure as Chancellor of Germany she was lauded for being blunt with Putin and yet having a constructive relationship. A more critical assessment would indicate that Merkel became overly attentive to Putin’s penchant for causing a crisis and then holding himself out as the solution to the very crisis he caused, assured Merkel would phone or meet with him to cut another deal, usually in Russia’s favour, even if limited to Russian domestic consumption. Now, the concern shifts to her successor, Olaf Scholz, whose history and personal political views are causing concern.
Scholz grew-up in East Germany. A committed socialist, Scholz joined the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP) in 1975. From 1987 to 1989 Scholz was the Vice President of the International Union of Socialist Youth. An unabashed adherent to promoting “overcoming the capitalist economy” in published articles, Scholz remained highly critical of what he wrote was the “aggressive-imperialist NATO”, further deriding the Federal Republic of Germany as the “European stronghold of big-business”. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Scholz met with members of the Politburo of the SED-Central Committee and received fee-waived visas to attend anti-Western ‘peace rallies’ in the Federal Republic.
A fellow adherent to the Keynesian school, like his SPD mentor and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Scholz is known to have favourable views towards Russia. Given his anti-NATO and anti-capitalist background, and in light of his stated political positions and history, Putin may well feel that Scholz can be a wedge between European Allies. The verdict is out on this concern, but there is enough information for it to resonate throughout Europe and NATO.
Last month Scholz sent shock-waves throughout the Transatlantic partners when he agreed to send his personal policy advisor, Jens Ploetner, to Moscow for negotiations over Ukraine instead of Germany’s Federal Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock. Baerbock is known to take a markedly more hard-line stance towards Russia than Scholz. Speculation throughout the West is that Scholz was sidelining his Foreign Affairs Minister to appease the Kremlin and set himself up to conduct bilateral relations with Putin directly without his Minister’s leadership. Both Scholz and Baerbock have denied this, however, the perception remains.
Scholz is scheduled to meet personally with Putin in the coming days.
Will Scholz Maintain Unity?
Although Scholz has made public statements criticising Russia for the troop movements to Ukraine’s border, he has failed to outright condemn them. Alarmingly, he continues to adhere to the position that NordStream 2 is simply an economic project and poses no energy security threat to Europe. Given Russia’s manipulation of gas supplies over the past 90-days, which have increased fears of inflation and driven gas-prices up at least four separate times all while Russia has built-up an invasion force on Ukraine’s border, such a position naturally concerns other Europeans, those in NATO, the OSCE and the U.S.
Whether or not Scholz will prove the weak-link in the chain to hold back Russian aggression, or if Putin plans to cut a separate deal with Scholz in order to elevate his prestige and crown him as the ‘go-to-guy’ on Russia within the Europe as Merkel’s natural and more Russo-friendly successor, remains to be seen. Given Putin’s panache for creating division to advance his cause and improve his negotiating position, especially where invasion and occupation is concerned, Scholz is positioned to play a key role.
In the end, Scholz will have to decide where he stands – with Europe – or convincing himself by befriending Putin he is a ‘peace-maker,’ even at the existential risk to Ukraine and Europe’s very freedom, sovereignty and the future of NATO.
Is It Too Late to Save Ukraine?
It is anyone’s guess as it depends on Putin’s appetite to gamble.
With overwhelming sea and air power, Russia could blockade and take Ukrainian ports relatively quickly, striking significant blows to Ukraine’s embattled economy. If Russia decides to occupy Snake Island, wrestling it from Ukrainian control, it would diminish Ukraine’s claim to freedom of navigation by the 12-mile freedom of navigation principle, further harming Ukraine and European interests and doing so with limited costs as opposed to trying to occupy all of Ukraine. A limited incursion on the Southern flank of Ukraine that would restore water supplies to the temporarily occupied Crimean Peninsula claimed by Russia through illegal annexation would solidify their hold there.
Putin may want to increase his footprint in Eastern Ukraine which would be fairly easy given Russia air superiority, advanced weapons systems and superior numbers of ground troops, but it would still prove costly in military terms and incur the further, biting economic wrath of the West. Putin may feel he is in the ‘driver’s seat’ as he has positioned Russian military forces for a lethal strike of whatever size he chooses, has undermined confidence between partners in the West and created a situation where it is too late for the U.S. or others to military bolster Ukraine without creating the impression that the West is escalating matters and providing a justification for a ‘pre-emptive strike‘ against Ukraine a la the George W. Bush doctrine that now haunts U.S. foreign policy by allowing despots to claim the same justification used in the U.S. ‘War on Terror‘ for territorial incursion and occupation.
For now, Ukrainians are opening-up long-shuttered Soviet era bomb shelters, preparing ‘escape backpacks, leaving bathtubs filled with water in case of shut-downs and hording batteries and medical supplies. The risks are high and there are many unknowns. The European border with Russia may shift 1,316km westward, making Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova the new frontiers for threat.
But be assured of one thing – whatever Putin decides to do – the diplomatic and military calculus will have been done in advance to ensure it is in the Russian Federation’s favour at the expense of the Rule of Law, Freedom and Democracy everywhere. Morality or legality are not factors in Putin’s equations.