Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

These days, it feels like we are back in the days of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. By scanning Russia’s national TV channels, Russia 1 and First Channel, one could not help but feel transported to the 1970s. Warmongering rhetoric is back and so is the main critique of the decadent West; film offerings range from the 1976 classic, Irony of Fate, to the 1967 comedy, Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, to, The Diamond Arm, a great 1969 hit.

On the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian public is fed with a healthy diet of nostalgia for the good old days of order and social stability.

Back-to-the-past also appears to be the mood in Moscow’s foreign policy. Summit between the US and Russia is becoming a regular feature of relations, a flashback to the height of the Cold War. On December 30, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone call to discuss tensions over Ukraine. Apparently, each of them directed warnings to the other side, but overall the tone was “constructive”.

The exchange came on the heels of a meeting between the two leaders via a video link held on December 7 to discuss a number of issues, including Ukraine. Six months earlier, they had held a face-to-face summit in Geneva, leading to the return of US and Russian ambassadors to the respective capitals.

Communication has also intensified at various levels of government. In early November, William Burns, CIA director and former ambassador to Russia, traveled to Moscow, where he met with Putin, Russia’s Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin to discuss tensions with Ukraine. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was also in contact with Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuriy Ushakov.

For the Kremlin, Biden’s full attention is a success. This is a clear sign that the gathering of troops and threatening military action against Ukraine is working. For the past six years, Moscow has become frustrated with the stalemate in the Ukrainian conflict. The Minsk II agreement reached in 2015 with the mediation of France and Germany did not succeed in ending the fighting.

Kiev and Moscow blame each other for the lack of progress. The Russians claim that Ukraine has not complied with its commitment to implement constitutional changes that have given broad autonomy to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk peoples’ republics as a step towards its reintegration. The Ukrainians, in turn, accuse Russia of not allowing the government in Kiev to regain control of the Russian-Ukrainian border.

To overcome the deadlock, the Kremlin wants to enforce a new agreement and do so through the US and bypass Paris and Berlin. The idea is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be faced with an accomplished fact and would have no choice but to fall in line.

But in dealing with the US, Russia has also stepped up the game. On December 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry circulated two treaty proposals, one with the US and one with NATO. They demanded that the Atlantic Alliance withdraw the promise made to Ukraine and Georgia in April 2008 that they could one day join.

The concept further requires that NATO should not place large combat forces in its eastern members, as it began to do after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Moscow also wants NATO to commit itself not to deploy range missiles near its borders.

Last but not least, the proposals call for an end to military assistance to Ukraine, either provided by the US or by NATO, as well as a cessation of alliance exercises involving post-Soviet countries. In essence, Russia wants to turn the clock back to the late 1990s, expel the West from Eastern Europe, and reaffirm its hegemonic position in its so-called “near abroad.”

By pursuing these goals, the Kremlin is using its military might. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weapons are currently deployed near the Russian-Ukrainian border as well as in the annexed Crimean peninsula. A good portion has been deployed since early 2021. An operation against Ukraine is therefore not off the table. Putin may be bluffing, but should he decide to pull against the neighboring country, he would have no problems at all.

The US and its European allies’ response was to pull Russia to the negotiating table to defuse tensions.

Following the active diplomatic outreach by the Biden administration at the end of December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that talks would be held on January 10. A Russia-NATO meeting will take place two days later. Even though most of the Russian proposals are non-principles for the West, participation in a diplomatic process is preferable to violence.

If all goes well, there may also be limited progress, especially with “unraveling” in areas where NATO and Russia are at odds, such as the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. Over time, talks can yield partial security agreements that are acceptable to both parties as well as to people like Ukraine and Georgia who, contrary to what the Kremlin believes, have their own interests and agency.

But to be sure, there is also a lot of skepticism. Some experts suggest that Russia’s publication of the draft treaties, before the actual talks, is a clever ploy to undermine the diplomatic trail and create a pretext for military action against Ukraine.

To succeed in this match, the US and its allies must negotiate with the Russians from a strong position. As in Brezhnev’s days, they must credibly deter Moscow from opening up space for real negotiations. That’s why the US is communicating to Putin his readiness to step up economic sanctions – “like no one he has ever seen”, in Biden’s words – in case of war.

However, it is not clear to what extent European allies would follow their example. In France, President Emmanuel Macron called for caution. Germany’s new governing coalition between the left, the Greens and the Liberals, may find itself divided on the issue, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz taking a pigeon line and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock insisting on a harsh response. Needless to say, Russia will do its best to exploit any political divisions that may arise within NATO.

So far, Putin’s strategy has borne fruit. Moscow has made deals with Washington as an almost geopolitical counterpart. At a time when the US is fixated on emerging China, this is no small feat. Brezhnev’s USSR may be long gone and today’s Russia may be a pale shadow of its predecessor, but from the Kremlin’s perspective he’s doing his best to stay in the game.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.

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