US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said there are “two ways” and that the possibility of “diplomacy and de-escalation” was one of two that the US and the international community had outlined for Moscow ahead of the meetings.
Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm, Sweden in December due to growing concern among Western powers that Russia was trying to invade Ukraine.
Relations between the West and Russia never arose after that time – instead, they reached almost the lowest levels of the Cold War.The NATO-Russia Council, founded in 2002 as a talking point for Western-Russian cooperation, has not met for over two years.
Blinken said on Friday that progress could be made during next week’s diplomatic negotiations between US, European and Russian officials, but that it had to be a “two-way street” where Russia de-escalates its aggression against Ukraine.
While several NATO officials told CNN that in their view, the fact that Russia has finally agreed to meet is a major concession and a sign that diplomacy could lead to a de-escalation, they are also cautious that an increasingly hostile Kremlin may not meet in good faith.
It was only last month that Moscow published two draft agreements outlining its demands to ease tensions at the Ukrainian border.These demands include the rollback of NATO missions in Eastern Europe to a point in the 1990s, which means that many countries, like neighboring Russia and under Soviet control, would be less protected by the alliance.
This, together with a promise that NATO will not expand further east, is an unacceptable demand and a non-starter from NATO’s perspective.
So what are the Russians hoping for?
NATO sources say the demands could be “deliberately ridiculous to force back on things like joining new NATO members, pulling people like Ukraine and Finland out of the mix”, or could simply be “an achievement that allows Russian officials to say , that they were trying to negotiate to justify an escalation to their citizens.“
Given the lack of flexibility on both sides, what is the point of the meeting?
According to officials from the most vociferous and oldest NATO members, Wednesday is an opportunity for the alliance to establish a firm and united stance: If Russia escalates tensions, it will face “serious economic consequences.We will use tools that were not deployed” in 2014.”
Officials who spoke to CNN were not present at what these tools would be because “separating them would allow Russia to prepare for them, defeat the purpose,” but it is fair to say that they would be a mix of harsh economic sanctions and even more NATO on Russia’s doorstep.
As risky as Western hostility may be by giving Putin, passivity can be worse.“Capitulating to demands outside this world would make the overall situation much more dangerous, as it would only encourage the Kremlin to act aggressively,” said Pasi Eronen, a research analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Center.
“Moreover, China and other revisionists are following the reaction to a Kremlin game.”
What is remarkable when talking to officials and experts now is a sense that the West is far less afraid of Russia than it has been in recent years.Poisoning and assassination of Russian citizens on foreign soil, brutal repression and imprisonment of political opponents, interference in foreign elections and the annexation of Crimea have all painted a picture of Putin as a strong leader to be feared.
Of course, if you live in Russia or a neighboring nation and have opposed Putin, then he is a scary individual.However, his escalating aggression may be due in part to his diminished power in other areas.
“Putin is an aging autocrat, obsessed with the legacy of his rule and the failure of the Soviet Union,” Eronen said.“Russia has been ravaged by Covid-19 and the future of its hydrocarbon export economy looks bleak.”
This economic weakness is where the West, if it remains united, may be able to force Putin’s hand.“His country has an economy about the size of New York.
If the West properly coordinated economic sanctions against him and against Russian business without fear, he would be backed into a corner very quickly,” said Bill Browder, a prominent American-born financier who has led if push for Magnitsky Act sanctions has made the Kremlin furious.
While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia in recent years for various Kremlin weekly events, it is fair to say that they could have gone further.
That is partly why next week is so important: if NATO allies all come on the same page, it can send the strongest possible message at a critical time.Just as Putin is trying to push his luck back, the West has the opportunity to say in formal diplomatic terms that it has run out of patience.
To make any new sanctions more effective than previous attempts to punish Russia, the West must be prepared to suffer some pain.In the past, targeting of Russian government debt and energy trade has been avoided.
According to Richard Connolly, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, “raising the cost of doing business for Russian companies, either by restricting access to capital or by restricting access to technologies,” could have a greater impact on the Russian economy and Putin’s inner circle than targeting individuals because “the most critical Russian business is somehow connected to the Kremlin.”
He also says that “imposing secondary sanctions on those who trade with Russia” in matters such as energy, weapons and strategic goods could do similar damage as secondary sanctions have done against Iran.
As for the more difficult issue of traditional tough power and the potential enlargement of NATO, some believe the Allies have reason to feel positive when they meet with the Russians on Wednesday.
“We must unite and not be afraid.Putin is afraid – not us.He is afraid of his own people, afraid of democratic elections,” said Rasa Juknevičienė, Lithuania’s former defense minister.She believes it is now time to speed up Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
“Europe can not go back to the time of Hitler and Stalin, when nations were divided.
The Ukrainians, not the Kremlin, must decide what will be Ukraine’s future.Ukraine’s success would be the best means against the Kremlin.They fear it most,” she adds..
It is clear that the negotiations next week will be tense and it will not be easy to resolve the Ukrainian crisis.Putin may be at his most dangerous when backed up in a corner, observers say, and he is currently juggling several foreign policy crises after Russian troops were sent to neighboring Kazakhstan to quell unrest following violent anti-government protests.A recurring theme over the past few years has been that Putin has jumped on Western flaws in the judiciary – from the withdrawal from Afghanistan to passivity in Syria – and using the power he has to strengthen his reputation as a powerful leader.
And as several NATO officials admitted, Putin worries much more about Ukraine than many in the West and will have unlimited patience to get what he wants if he senses weakness in the West.
The West is entering next week with so many strategic advantages over Russia that on paper it should be relative to forcing Putin’s hand on de-escalation in Eastern Europe.
However, Putin has not been in power for more than 20 years for no reason.
If the West is to succeed in exploiting its position as this critical moment and cut Putin to size, its unity must be unbreakable.A repeat of the mistakes of 2014 could create an even more dangerous version of the Russian leader if he is able to stare down at the earth’s most powerful alliance.
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