Russian, American, and European diplomats ended three days of meetings this week on a grim note, with Moscow’s top delegate shrugging that the talks had hit a “dead end” and others fearful that this meant a war in Ukraine might be imminent.
But there were also signs of a possible settlement—or at least an exit ramp off the speedway to widened conflict.
The emergency meetings—the first with senior U.S. and Russian diplomats, the second with officials from Russia and the 30 nations of NATO, the third with ambassadors from the 57 member-states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—were held to see if there was a way to ward off a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. For several weeks now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that President Joe Biden promise, in a legal document, never to let Ukraine—Russia’s western neighbor and former fellow republic in the Soviet Union—join the NATO military alliance. Though the issue of Ukraine’s membership is not remotely on anyone but Putin’s agenda, the U.S. and its NATO allies unanimously insisted that no outside country should have a say on who can or cannot join. Putin also wants all foreign military personnel to leave Ukraine. (Currently, about 150 U.S. advisers are teaching Ukrainian forces how to use U.S.-supplied weapons.) Washington has demanded that Putin withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine and pull back the 90,000 troops—many of them armored units—that he has mobilized near the Ukrainian border, as if preparing to invade. Putin denies that any Russian troops have ever been inside Ukraine and regards internal troop movements as a matter of national sovereignty.
Tensions have been high ever since 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and mounted an incursion into the eastern Ukrainian province of Donbass, to support an armed insurgency by pro-Russia separatists. Putin launched this aggression after protesters in Kiev ousted the Moscow-backed Ukrainian president and a new government took steps to tighten its ties to the Western-led European Union. More than 14,000 people—including at least 400 Russian soldiers—have been killed in this war.
Putin has justified his recent moves as a need to counter Washington’s growing “military infrastructure” in Ukraine, which he sees as a threat to Russia. He has a point, though the threat isn’t to Russia but rather to Russia’s grip on a “sphere of influence” outside its borders—which, to Putin and many other Russians, not just now but historically, amounts to the same thing. This is important to understand. Putin has decried the splintering of the Soviet Union, which occurred 30 years ago, as a “geostrategic catastrophe.” In the decade after the end of the Cold War, several of Moscow’s former allies—notably Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany (the eastern half of which was once a separate Communist country)—joined NATO. If Ukraine—the last buffer state and a centuries-long ally so close to Russia that Putin doesn’t even regard it as a separate country—were to follow along, the loss would intensify. No Russian leader, not even one much more conciliatory than Putin, could allow it.
In other words, the conflicts of interest over Ukraine are deep, multilayered, and possibly irreconcilable. However, that doesn’t mean Putin will mount a deeper, larger invasion of Ukraine in order to fend off what he sees as a real threat. In fact, there is already a formula in place for avoiding conflict, and one of Moscow’s top envoys mentioned it this week as a possible way out.
A half an hour into his press conference on Wednesday, Alexander Grushko, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, uttered the magic words: “the Minsk agreements.” The Minsk agreements were signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015 as a way to end the fighting and secure a peace. They called for a ceasefire, a pullback of heavy weapons from the battlefield, the disarmament of all militia groups but also amnesty for the pro-Russia separatists involved in the fighting, an exchange of hostages and prisoners, and the resumption of socio-economic links between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied region of Donbass. The agreements also called for elections in Donbass, which might result in the region’s further drift from Kiev and the ascension of officials in the parliament or the government who favor a more pro-Russia foreign policy.
In other words, it was an accord that had something to offend all parties, and as a result, neither Kiev nor Moscow has taken steps to enforce it. But now here was Grushko saying that if the Minsk accords were implemented, then the topic of Ukraine would hold no threat to Russia.
The significant thing here is that the Biden administration has a similar view. On Dec. 2, Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said this at a news conference after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov:
I also made clear the United States is prepared to work with both parties [Russia and Ukraine] to support a diplomatic resolution through implementation of the Minsk agreements in any way that we can. That diplomatic way forward can avert a crisis that would serve no one’s interest. (Italics added.)
This was just six weeks ago—i.e., six weeks before Lavrov’s deputy, Grushko, put the Minsk agreements on the table as a possible way to “de-escalate” the conflict.
Quite apart from the three meetings this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—hesitant to put the fate of his nation in the hands of Washington or NATO—has been pursuing his own diplomatic initiative with Russia. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, he has presented a 10-point plan, including a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners, and the opening of crossing points for civilians in the front lines of the fighting. The ceasefire has already been implemented. The rest fits comfortably into the Minsk formula.
What happens next is largely up to Putin. If he wants to settle the Ukraine question once and for all (or at least fight trying), and if he really means it when he says that Biden must agree to all of his demands barring U.S. military activities in Eastern Europe (some of which are clearly unacceptable), well, then, we’ve reached an impasse.
However, the results of this week’s meetings might make Putin reconsider invasion, if that had been his intention before. For one thing, Putin probably assumed that his demands would spark dissension among the NATO allies, with some pressuring the others to give in, noting that nobody wants Ukraine to join anyway, so why make this a cause for war? However, to the surprise of many, top officials from each NATO country spoke up at the meeting, and all 30 stood up for the principle that only the alliance can decide who can and cannot be a member. Putin’s tactics have only strengthened the alliance.
As the meetings began, U.S. officials also leaked details of what they might do if Putin takes military action. They won’t send American troops to fight (that’s been clear all along), but they (and other NATO nations) would assist the Ukrainian army and a fledgling civilian resistance force to fend off the attack. A new round of economic sanctions would target Russian officials specifically, making it hard or impossible to use dollars or travel to Western countries. Finally, if Putin is really worried about encirclement, Finland and Sweden—neighbors to the north, Western but resolutely neutral on military matters—have said they are thinking about seeking NATO membership and there is no reason why the alliance would reject their application; both countries certainly qualify by their commitment to democratic principles.
By contrast, if Putin decides to keep talking, and particularly to open up dialogue on the Minsk agreements, he could continue to pressure Ukraine while also earning points—polishing his image as a great leader and peacemaker—simply for not attacking his neighbor. Sanctions would likely be lifted, not piled on; the neighbors to the north would stay neutral; and the newly emboldened members of NATO, normally reluctant to get confrontational, might retreat to their slumber.
The dangling of the Minsk agreements—first by Blinken and now by Grushko—shows all parties the way to a finessing of the present confrontation. A rational leader would call off the attack, send the troops back to their bivouacs, and send envoys to the negotiating tables, where many other games can be played. The question is whether Putin is a rational leader.