Went to disaster? The US and Russia are tightening their positions in talks

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The failure of past high-stakes diplomatic meetings to resolve the escalation of tensions over Ukraine has led to Russia The United States and its European allies in unexplored territory since the Cold War, which pose important challenges for the main actors to avoid an open and potentially catastrophic conflict.

Unlike previous disagreements that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current Ukrainian crisis and the seemingly insurmountable differences between Washington and Moscow they bear the real risks of exhausting economic warfare and military conflicts, which are exacerbated by the danger of miscalculation and overreaction.

For the United States and its NATO and other European allies, no less than the large withdrawal of some 100,000 Russian troops now deployed near the Ukrainian border will prove that the Russian president Vladimir Putin intends to negotiate in good faith. For the Russians, the West’s complete refusal to consider a ban on NATO enlargement and the withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe is proof of its perfidy.

Possible concessions are hampered by the fact that neither Putin nor the president Joe Biden he wants to be seen as a retreat in front of a domestic or foreign audience.

The refusal of each side to back down from what the other considers unrealistic and maximalist demands has left the prospects for diplomacy uncertain, with the US and its allies accusing Russia of fueling tensions for no legitimate reason and the Russians they complain again that Americans are aggressors.

Some believe the situation will have to get even worse before the impasse can be broken.

“The gap in perception is so wide that a new and dangerous escalation could be needed for the parties to open their imaginations and seek agreements,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Foreign and Defense Policy Council. comment.

Western analysts see a situation in which Putin will have to compromise if we want to avoid conflict. Some believe Putin’s focus on NATO, which has struggled for years with questions about its importance, may have given the Alliance new life.

“This is an extremely uncertain and tense period with no obvious way out unless Putin withdraws,” said Jeff Rathke, a Europe expert and former U.S. diplomat who is currently president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“It simply came to our notice then. He has shown that he is willing to play with the threat of mass military force to achieve this, and he has certainly attracted everyone’s attention, but he has not changed anyone’s views, ”Rathke said.

U.S. officials from Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to chief negotiator Wendy Sherman said Russia is the one facing a “sharp choice”. De-escalate or face punitive sanctions and the opposite of what it wants: an increased NATO presence in Eastern Europe and a better-armed Ukraine.

But in Russia, officials say the shoe is on the other foot. They set their demands as an “absolute imperative” and argued that because of the West’s failure to meet them, talks on other issues become irrelevant.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Russia had spent years trying in vain to persuade the United States and its allies to engage in talks on non-deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe, restrictions on war games and rules to avoid dangerously close encounters between Russian and Allied warships. and planes until the U.S. and NATO expressed readiness to discuss these issues this week.

He attributed the change in approach to the US desire to divert attention from Russia’s main demands, adding that Moscow would focus on NATO non-proliferation. And he insisted that the U.S. is the one to shape the position in the talks, while the other allies are just stepping on their orders.

“Frankly, everyone understands that the chances of reaching an agreement depend on the United States,” Lavrov said. He said all the U.S. says about the need to consult with allies in the negotiations is “just excuses and attempts to delay the process.”

So stale position.

The West’s approach has been “maximizing diplomatic efforts to de-escalate,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president of study at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia in Washington and Moscow.

“The problem we have is that the Russians are thinking about business, and in many cases, in 2014, 2008, they showed us that they are willing to go to war to get these things, and we are not,” he said. said. “And that’s a challenge.”

Russia’s tough and uncompromising stance has led some to believe that Moscow will only pick up the pace once it receives what all parties expect to be official, written refusals from the US and NATO to agree to its demands.

In fact, Russia’s chief negotiator in talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, suggested on Thursday that Moscow could respond to the refusals by stepping up matters outside Europe by possibly sending troops to Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S. has described such a proposal as “blaming” and said it would react decisively if that happened.

“The lack of a diplomatic solution logically leads to a further escalation of the crisis,” Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an online analysis.

Trenin predicted that the set of “military-technical measures” Putin said Russia would take if the West rejected its demands could include “a wide range of moves … from introducing new weapons systems in different regions to much stronger military ties “. with Belarus and closer cooperation with Chinese partners.

Nevertheless, there is a risk that Putin may have inadvertently strengthened his arms by focusing his anger on NATO, especially with new members such as the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

“For the countries that have joined NATO since the Cold War, you can definitely say that NATO is more important to them now than it was a year ago or in 2014,” Rathke said. “Anyone who thought that NATO was no longer important for European security has learned a lesson in the last few months. And things will only get worse.”

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Lorne Cook of Brussels contributed to this report.

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