- Russia has spent this week engaging US and its NATO allies in talks amid tensions over Ukraine.
- Some experts and officials have raised concerns Russia could use failed talks as a pretext to invade.
- “This does give them a kind of veil of legitimacy if they decide to invade Ukraine,” one expert said.
Some senior US officials and Russia watchers have expressed concerns that Russia may use this week’s stalled diplomatic talks in Europe as a pretext to invade Ukraine, as Moscow continues its aggressive moves near Ukraine’s border while making demands that the US and its NATO allies have dismissed as non-starters.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki questioned Tuesday whether Russia will “use discussions as pretext to claim that diplomacy couldn’t possibly work in order to proceed with the aggressive rhetoric and actions, most importantly, that they have portrayed at the border.”
Similarly, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has been leading the US delegation during this week’s talks, said on Wednesday that Russia must decide “whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext, and they may not even know yet.”
There has been almost no movement on either side of the negotiating table during this week’s talks. Jim Townsend, an adjunct senior fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for New American Security, told Insider Wednesday “you can only say that there’s been progress in the sense that it hasn’t blown up.”
On Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dashed hopes for further talks, saying he sees “no grounds” for doing so. “There is, to a certain extent, a dead end or a difference in approaches,” he said. “I do not see reasons to sit down in the coming days, to gather again and start these same discussions.”
Russia, which invaded and annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, has moved a significant force of tens of thousands of troops into positions along the former Soviet republic’s border in recent weeks. The Kremlin has denied any plans to invade, but it continues to assume an alarming posture, stirring fears of a large-scale invasion of its neighbor, possibly to annex additional territory in the east, seize the capital, or some other to-be-determined endgame.
Ukraine’s forces stand little chance of stopping a major Russian advance given its numerical advantages in tanks, troops and air power. And the Biden administration has signaled it would not send troops in if Russia invades Ukraine because it is not a NATO member and the US is therefore not obligated to defend it.
Russian armor and troops engaged in live-fire drills near Ukraine on Tuesday, which Sherman decried as being unconducive to the ongoing diplomatic discussions.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to strongly push for binding security guarantees from the US and NATO, including provisions stating that Ukraine and Georgia must never be permitted to join NATO and that the alliance reduce its presence in eastern Europe.
The US and NATO have repeatedly made it clear that the alliance’s open-door policy is nonnegotiable, but the Kremlin has nonetheless persisted in making this demand, among others, even doubling down on them despite opposition. And as its demands have been dismissed, Moscow has made statements pointing to the possibility of conflict.
“The Russian side has repeatedly proposed to the alliance to take measures to de-escalate the situation,” Alexander Fomin, who serves as Russia’s deputy defense minister, said on Wednesday. “On the part of the alliance, Russian initiatives were ignored. This creates prerequisites for incidents and conflicts, undermines the foundations of security.”
‘The big question’
Some experts worry that Russia may have no intention of pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis and is effectively searching for an excuse, such as failed talks, to escalate the situation.
Other expert observers suspect that Putin may be hedging his bets by pursuing diplomatic engagement in hopes of achieving his objectives without conflict while preparing to use military force if such endeavors are unsuccessful, which is how a Kremlin spokesperson characterized talks Thursday.
Steven Pifer, the US ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, told Insider the “big question” hanging over this week’s talks is whether Russia’s security proposals, which include “unacceptable demands,” are meant to be “the opening bid in a serious give-and-take negotiation, or did the Kremlin put them forward expecting, indeed seeking, rejection so as to have another pretext for taking military action against Ukraine?”
Both US and NATO officials have told their Russian counterparts that there’s potentially space for common ground on some provisions proposed by Moscow, such as limitations on the size and scope of military exercises in the region, Pifer said, but NATO won’t “renounce further enlargement or agree to withdraw forces from states that joined the Alliance after 1997.”
“How Moscow responds to this will tell us the answer to the big question,” Pifer said, adding that “it may well be that Putin and the Kremlin have not yet decided.”
“But it does appear that the Russians are putting in place the capabilities for major military operations against Ukraine if that is the Kremlin’s decision,” he said.
Putin, another expert warned, may feel it necessary to achieve something beyond seizing the world’s attention with his threats and troop build-up.
“They certainly set the table to be able to do that. And, it is up to Putin,” Townsend said. “If he feels that he’s not going to get anything out of this, certainly not something that he could point to as a success, a big success, if he feels that he’s just getting crumbs, then he almost has to go into Ukraine.”
That said, he explained, the question then is what does Putin get out of invading Ukraine.
“This really isn’t about Ukraine anymore. Ukraine kind of started this off, but this is much more about the overall security architecture in Europe,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia expert at CNA and a former CIA military analyst, told Insider. “This was about Ukraine. Ukraine’s a symptom of a much deeper problem that they have to solve.”
“This is a conversation that has been going on for 30 years,” Edmonds said. “This has built up to a crescendo where they’re going to force a solution to a longstanding problem,” one way or another, either through talks or through military action.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, eastern European countries long in Russia’s shadow opted to join NATO, including Poland, Romania and Slovakia, as well as the three Baltic states that border Russia. This eastward expansion has been the subject of heated debate over whether it brought the NATO shield too close to countries Russia has exerted influence over.
Putin likely “has various contingencies in mind,” he said, explaining to Insider that Putin knows he has a decision to make.
“If we were to move on things in such a way that he thought he could get a lot out of it or get a big deal out of it, then probably he would back down,” Edmonds said. But talks with Russia do not appear to be addressing the issues at the heart of the problem, Russian security concerns, and could fail to ease tensions.
“So, in a real sense,” he explained, “this does give them a kind of veil of legitimacy if they decide to invade Ukraine.” For the moment, he said, “I don’t think the decision’s really been made” on what the next step is for Russia.