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U.S., Allies Set For Talks With Russia As Threat Of New Ukraine Invasion Looms  

A satellite image shows Russian military vehicles massed near the Ukrainian border in Soloti, Russia, on December 5.
A satellite image shows Russian military vehicles massed near the Ukrainian border in Soloti, Russia, on December 5.

The United States and its European allies will hold a series of high-level talks next week with Moscow, addressing the Kremlin’s demands for sweeping restrictions on NATO enlargement and operations as well as Western concerns about what U.S. intelligence says are Russian preparations for a possible new invasion of Ukraine.

The stakes are high for all parties involved. The outcome of the meetings -- and how Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to assess them -- could have enormous consequences for the future of Ukraine, NATO, and European security, analysts said.

The three separate sets of talks, slated for January 9-13, come at a nadir in post-Cold War relations between the West and Russia, which has increasingly used military force and energy leverage to claw back some of the geopolitical influence it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Fears of an escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine will be in the air as Western and Russian officials meet first in Geneva, then in Brussels, and then in Vienna to discuss, among other things, Russia’s demands for what it calls security guarantees -- but what some analysts term an aggressive bid for a recognized sphere of influence -- as well as what Western officials say are Moscow’s destabilizing actions across much of the continent.

Russia has amassed about 100,000 combat-ready troops north and east of the border with Ukraine and in Crimea, which Moscow occupied and seized in 2014, and is also backing separatists in the eastern Donbas region where an armed conflict with Kyiv has killed more an 13,000 people since the same year.

Kyiv’s efforts to escape Moscow’s orbit, avert any further Russian aggression, and potentially join NATO in the future are issues that will be at the heart of the talks, at least informally.

The Kremlin has called NATO membership for Ukraine a “red line.” One of the main demands set out in the proposed agreements with the United States and NATO last month was a binding pledge that the Western alliance would never take in Ukraine or any other country near Russia’s borders.

John Herbst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-06 and now an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL he believes the Russian buildup is an attempt to “intimidate the United States, Germany, and Ukraine into making concessions” during the talks.

U.S. and NATO officials have said that some of Russia’s demands, such as a bar on NATO expansion and the withdrawal of NATO infrastructure from Central and Eastern Europe, are nonstarters -- and that Russia knows this.

That has led some analysts to suspect they are just political theater ahead of an offensive against Ukraine, while others argue they are the opening salvo by a confident Russia in serious, long-term talks.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has called some of Russia’s demands “unacceptable,” stressing that every nation has the sovereign right to determine which alliances to seek to join.

At the same time, the administration has said that diplomacy with Russia on security issues is “merited” -- but that it must be reciprocal. U.S. officials have also emphasized repeatedly that no decisions will be made without consulting allies and partners, including Ukraine.

The meetings kick off on January 9-10 in Geneva, where U.S. and Russian officials are expected to discuss the mounting tensions over Ukraine as well as arms control. On January 12, the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in over two years is to be held in Brussels.

Those talks will be followed by a January 13 meeting in Vienna within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States, its European allies, Ukraine, and Russia.

Neither Biden nor Putin will be attending the meetings.

'Bargain Through Warfare'

Russia listed its demands in two draft agreements, one with the United States and one with NATO, that it took the unusual step of issuing publicly after amassing the troops along Ukraine’s border.

Cast as proposals but issued amid implicit threats of the use of military force, the demands follow years of complaints from Putin about NATO's eastward enlargement, as well as what analysts say is his own failure to assuage concerns in neighboring nations and the West about Russia's intentions.

At a widely viewed annual press conference on December 23, Putin called on the United States and NATO to accept the proposals “immediately.” He later warned that if Russia is not satisfied with the Western response, its actions will depend on “what proposals our military experts submit to me.”

Yuval Weber, an expert on Russian military and political strategy at Texas A&M's Bush School in Washington, D.C., called Russia’s proposals an ultimatum. He said Russia is not offering the West anything in exchange for NATO’s “unilateral disarmament” other than a promise to solve a crisis it artificially created on Ukraine’s border.

“It's all take and no give,” he said of the Russian proposals. “What they're trying to convey to the larger West is, ‘We're willing to bargain through warfare.’”

However, he said he believes Putin will take any concession now that gets him closer to the goal of creating a sphere of influence, and would then use that as the new starting point the next time he initiates a crisis in Europe.

Officials and analysts differ on the likelihood of Putin launching large-scale military action against Ukraine if he isn’t satisfied with the results of the talks. Some have suggested Russia could try to seize the portion of Ukraine east of the Dniepr River.

Herbst said such a major invasion is “highly unlikely” but did not rule out Russia trying to seize smaller pieces of Ukrainian territory, such as Zmiyiniy Island, a sliver of land in the Black Sea that safeguards the nation’s shipping corridor.

Others have said Russia could carry out targeted missile strikes against Ukraine.

The Biden administration has said that the buildup appears to be a prelude to a new invasion, but that it believes Putin has not yet made a final decision.

Some analysts say the optimal outcome for the West and Ukraine would be nothing more than an agreement to continue talks with Russia that temporarily stalls military action.

But such a result would put Putin in a hard spot, said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.

“Putin has backed himself into a corner” with Russia’s military buildup and tough rhetoric, and it would be hard for him domestically to just walk away empty-handed, Pomeranz said.

“Putin needs something more tangible than just ‘we had a meeting in Europe with NATO,’” he said.

Herbst said he thinks Putin’s level of control over the Russian media, elite, and security services gives him “complete flexibility” to reverse course and de-escalate if he decides to do so.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told an Atlantic Council conference that the upheaval that erupted in Kazakhstan this week could give Putin an excuse to step back. Russia has sent troops to the Central Asian nation under the auspices of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

'Massive' Consequence

As the talks approach, a big question is whether Putin wants to step back -- or can be persuaded to do so. Analysts say Russia may have mounted the buildup because Putin feels a sense of urgency, believing that the time to try to thwart Ukraine’s growing ties with NATO and the United States is now.

“Russia sees this [buildup] as necessary to be taken seriously,” Weber said.

The United States has given more than $2.5 billion in defensive military aid to Ukraine, including lethal anti-tank missiles, since Russia seized Crimea, fomented separatism, and backed the anti-Kyiv forces in the Donbas in 2014.

In this image released by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service, Ukrainian soldiers launch U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles during military exercises in the Donetsk region on December 23.
In this image released by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service, Ukrainian soldiers launch U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles during military exercises in the Donetsk region on December 23.

While Russia has a strong capability to destroy critical Ukrainian infrastructure today, Weber said, that may not be the case in several years if the country continues to build up its defense capabilities with the help of NATO.

Russia may also feel it has the wind at its back at the moment to drive hard bargains amid a surge in prices in Europe for energy, especially natural gas, in the dead of winter, Pomeranz said. He said Putin may be betting that Europe’s dependence on Russian energy will weaken Western unity on deterrence measures.

The Biden administration has been trying to corral European allies behind a united, tough response to discourage Russia from an attack on Ukraine. In the run-up to next week’s meetings, Biden and his top foreign policy aides have held extensive talks with their respective counterparts in Europe to coordinate their response.

During the talks with Russia, U.S. and European officials are expected to lay out the “massive” economic consequences they are prepared to impose should Russia attack Ukraine. They are also expected to say they will increase military aid to Ukraine in the event of an attack as well as bolster NATO’s presence near Russia.

Olga Oliker, the director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, said that Western deterrence needs to “credibly threaten escalation unacceptable to Russia” if it is to work, because Putin is willing to go to war if he doesn’t get what he wants.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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