Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

Agree to talks with a belligerent force threatens to invade another country will inevitably be seen as a reward for intimidation. But the US and its NATO allies have no choice but to engage with Russia in a series of meetings this week to try to ward off a fire in Ukraine, even if it feels part of a Kremlin protection missile. There may even be room for compromise that will address some of Moscow’s alleged security issues and prevent the threat of full-scale war. Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is at all willing to engage in good faith is another question.

Last month, Russia published his claims for a comprehensive rewriting of the European security system in two draft treaties, with the US and with NATO. Russian officials followed up with an avalanche of threatening ultimatums. In both style and content, this was no way to start conversations. The texts contain far-fetched and one-sided demands that are contrary to the fundamentals of European security after the Cold War, including each country’s right to choose its own foreign policy. The Western allies could never accept these demands and Moscow knows it.

Putin is determined to stop further expansion of NATO. He claims that the alliance, by expanding, betrayed the assurance given at the end of the Cold War – no matter that Russia agreed when it closed its own relationship with the organization in 1998. For Moscow, the retention of Ukraine from NATO is central to its centuries-old insistence on creating a buffer zone on Russia’s borders.

But to explicitly deny NATO membership to Ukraine, let alone Sweden or Finland, would violate NATO’s founding treaty. Its members will not unanimously agree to change it. Nor should they reward Russian bullying. There is no appetite for bringing Ukraine in at this stage, but it would be naive to think that the end of Kyiv’s NATO aspirations would end the Russian destabilization of Ukraine.

US and European officials are rightly determined that these talks cannot be defined by Russia’s red lines. They will counter with their own. Russia’s violation of territorial integrity, denial of the right of nations to choose their own destiny, repeated aggression against Ukraine and destabilization in various ways of other Western democracies must all be on the table. The challenge for diplomats on both sides will be to identify areas of common ground within this melee that can serve as a basis for further talks and ultimately structured negotiations.

Fortunately, there are some, though this means that some of the treaty provisions that Russia has violated or neglected in the past need to be reinvented. Russia’s skewed demand that it and the US refrain from deploying ground-launched, medium-range missiles outside their national territories could be the basis for talks to replace the 1987 treaty on such weapons, which collapsed in 2018 after Russian invasions. Russia and NATO can explore new controls on conventional force deployment and exercises and agree to renewed transparency and communication. NATO excluded creation “second class” members where it could not station troops. But it could potentially reconsider deployment in front-line countries if Moscow makes peace with Kiev and accepts restrictions on the deployment of its own forces or weapons in Belarus or Kaliningrad.

Progress will require goodwill from both sides and Russia shows nothing by holding a gun to Ukraine’s head. Russian de-escalation along Ukraine’s borders is a prerequisite for any substantive negotiations. Putin may have every intention of walking away and using the failure of talks as a pretext for attack. The West must hope for the best out of its diplomacy, while preparing for the worst by underlining its readiness to impose severe sanctions and strengthen Kyiv’s defenses.

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