As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares for talks with his American counterpart Joe Biden on Tuesday, there is no doubt that Ukraine is high on the list of urgent talks after weeks of rhetoric from escalation.
Washington and Kiev have warned of the possibility of Moscow ordering a full-scale invasion, with NATO rallying to the Eastern European country and issuing increasingly severe warnings. The Kremlin, however, denies that such plans are underway and has instead accused Ukraine and its Western backers of staging a series of provocations, while fabricating a campaign of disinformation.
As is often the case with Russia, the media storm has lost touch with the facts. Remember, for example, the “Bonus” Would Moscow have paid for the Americans killed in Afghanistan? Widely refuted. The said “Steel File” who portrayed former US President Donald Trump as a Russian agent? Customized waste.
In fact, to speak of a full-scale Russian invasion is speculative. Even US officials admit they can’t really predict it, while interpreting Russian troop movements as a precursor. It’s easy to see why Ukrainian leaders may be interested in amplifying a Russian threat right now: President Volodymyr Zelensky is losing popularity and under heavy pressure from his domestic opponents. As with his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, pointing out external dangers can come across as a promising distraction.
Washington may also have domestic concerns that need to be diverted from. After initially being given big credit upfront just for not being Donald Trump, Biden is now facing plummeting odds. A cynic might suspect a case of talking about an invasion plan to take credit for themselves when the attack that no one intended to launch does not happen.
Yet there are real reasons for concern, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out, due to three important contexts:
In narrow terms, Russia on the one hand, and Ukraine and the West on the other, disagree on how to implement the 2014 Minsk II Accord. this is the only agreed plan to end the Ukrainian crisis, the crisis cannot end. The second, broader context is that Russia refuses to accept Ukraine’s geopolitical security realignment with the West. Moscow posed “red lines”: it will not tolerate Ukraine’s accession to NATO or de facto military integration through the intensification of cooperation, arms sales and infrastructure.
Finally, more fundamentally, Moscow and the West are struggling to find a stable place for a Russia that is no longer abnormally weak, as in the 1990s, but also less powerful than the former Soviet Union in the long 1970s. Russia is back, but no one has figured out what exactly that means yet. One thing is clear: Moscow remembers the broken assurances of NATO’s non-expansion in 1990 and 1993 and now demands guarantees that the alliance will stop its march east.
It is these issues that make talking about escalation unfortunately not without merit. The attitude that dominates most Western discussions is primitive – to insist that Ukraine is a sovereign state and can join any alliance it wants, and that NATO will not allow Russia to vetoing one’s decisions seems decidedly in fashion, but is, in fact, not just dead end but bad thinking as well.
Of course, Ukraine is a sovereign state. But it’s not a “Natural law” of these states to join any alliance of their choice. Concretely, Ukraine has the right to apply for membership in NATO. It’s not a good idea, but Kiev can exercise its sovereignty by making bad choices. However, Ukraine does not have the right of admission. This can only be granted by a unanimous decision of all current NATO members, each of whom has the right to say no. Those who spread the false impression that Ukraine’s sovereignty would be violated if NATO did not let it join denigrate the rights of all current NATO members to oppose, which we might understand as diminishing their own. precious sovereignty.
Second, by saying, like NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a reliable pedestrian, that NATO does not owe Russia a “veto” is commonplace. Of course, this is not the case. But even though Russia does not have “veto,” NATO may still have good reasons of its own for taking Moscow’s point of view seriously. He should even allow himself the possibility of accepting it, at least sometimes.
Third, this is why it is so disturbing to see Stoltenberg go even further by adding that Russia “has no say in” That is. It looks tough. But what does that mean? That Russia does not have a vote because it is not a member of NATO? Frankly, the point is still missing.
Indeed, a useful relationship with Russia – like all good diplomacy – is not built on the mutual granting of veto or votes, but on the sufficient consideration of the concerns and interests of the other not to exclude the compromise. Even when – indeed, precisely when – these concerns and interests fall outside the “veto” and “Vote”. It is puzzling to see a NATO Secretary General so confused about the basic facts of interstate life.
And finally, Stoltenberg informs us that Russia has “no right to a sphere of influence” or to try “Control your neighbors”. Stoltenberg hides a crucial distinction here: faced with the fact that Moscow cannot accept, in the words of Dmitri Trenin, that Ukraine be transformed “in an unsinkable US-controlled aircraft carrier stationed at the Russian border a few hundred kilometers from Moscow” is not the same as giving up Russian control over Ukraine.
This is important because it is typical of most lazy western thoughts. Instead of exploring the space for compromise that opens up when both sides make concessions, Stoltenberg associates any concession with massive surrender and, worse yet, betrayal. Even listening to Russia, this deeply emotional, somewhat jealous approach, is already selling off Ukraine.
In reality, a real compromise is possible. Close-up: NATO stops expanding. This is not a difficult request: the alliance has already added 14 members to the 16 it had at the end of the Cold War. Maybe once he has practically doubled his numbers, he can rest and digest?
Moreover, NATO’s decision to close the door would be just that – NATO’s. Kiev might find this disappointing, but having never had the right to become a member, Ukraine would not lose an iota of sovereignty.
Russia should agree to accept an essentially neutral Ukraine retaining a privileged relationship with the EU and never joining Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union.
Inside Ukraine, separatist zones are expected to be reinstated through a mix of amnesties, internationally supervised elections and special status. This can be done without large-scale decentralization that would undermine the Ukrainian state, a horror scenario widely abused by those who do not want compromise anyway. Finally, Crimea would be the most difficult issue and might require a disagreement agreement, for a long time.
Yet here is the real catch. It would be incredibly optimistic to believe that the above – or something similar – is possible now. Confidence has collapsed; intransigence dominates; diplomacy and compromise are systematically denounced as appeasement. Leaders are captive – often willingly – to their own rhetoric and harsh images. Putin, remember, is not the only one (occasionally) wearing aviator sunglasses. The same goes for Joe Biden, who insisted on presenting a pair to the Russian president at their last meeting in Geneva.
President Biden, for his part, has already announced that he will not accept any Russian red lines. And to be fair, how could he? His Congress and the media would tear him to pieces. It doesn’t matter that the United States usually establishes its own red lines – and all over the world, not just in its neighborhood.
At the same time, all those who are not completely devoid of reason or conscience know that further escalation would be catastrophic, for Ukraine and far beyond. However, for the moment, this crisis has no solution. An end may be nearer than you think, but it can also be far away, and it is certainly not in sight. When a conflict cannot be resolved by fighting or a final settlement through negotiation, only a temporary compromise remains. Could NATO, for example, give written assurances not to stop but to suspend the expansion – de jure and de facto – for a period agreed between it and Russia? Could Russia, in return, give the same kind of assurances that it does not see the need to concentrate more significant and potentially offensive forces on Ukraine’s borders?
The decisive alternative at stake is not, in reality, that between “hard” and “soft, tender” lines or, to use classic Cold War terminology, the preferences of “hawks” and “doves”. What really matters is the distinction between short-term and long-term thinking, or, if you like, impatience and patience.
It is this fundamental impasse that will likely prevent any chance of a proper and lasting compromise when Biden and Putin meet later on Tuesday. Not all long-term answers may be possible, but we can always hope for short-term relief if cold heads prevail.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.