US-Russia summit on European security sounds cold war echo

In Moscow the hope is for “fairly quick results”, while Washington talks of uncertain outcomes. As US and Russian diplomats prepare for a summit in Geneva with Europe’s geopolitical balance at stake, the difference in mood music is stark.

That Russia arrives at the table on Monday with more than 100,000 troops stationed menacingly on the border of neighbouring Ukraine, and has threatened military action if the talks come to nothing, is just part of its leverage.

More importantly, President Vladimir Putin has already achieved the goal of forcing the US to discuss a slew of demands that would reshape Europe’s security architecture, with few areas of possible agreement that would not look like western capitulation.

“Putin is going into these talks with a very strong hand . . . I think this meeting is misjudged,” said Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “The summit would only yield marginal success if the west went in united together and they had a serious negotiation strategy. And they don’t have one.”

Russia viewed Europe through the cold war prism of a continent bisected between superpowers, Dempsey explained, which conflicts with the US and European view forged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“How [the Americans] are going to actually square this circle is going to be very difficult. Putin is of the old school and will not give up on spheres of influence,” she added.

Two lists of Russian demands submitted to the US and Nato last month include a ban on Ukraine and other former Soviet states joining the western military alliance, a prohibition on the deployment of any missiles close enough to hit Russia, and a Kremlin veto on where Nato troops and weapons can be stationed in almost all of its eastern flank members.

The negotiations chime with two fundamental objectives that have defined Putin’s two-decade rule: a seat at the geopolitical top table opposite the US, and the prospect of halting Nato’s eastern expansion and shrinking the American military presence in Europe.

“The very fact . . . that security guarantees are being discussed at all . . . is a huge breakthrough” for Russia, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R. Politik, a Kremlin-focused political consultancy. “It’s never happened before.”

For US negotiators, led by assistant secretary of state Wendy Sherman, a de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis is the primary goal. But how to achieve this without giving their Russian counterparts a prize to take home to Moscow that would weaken the security of Kyiv or Nato allies in eastern Europe appears a perilous task.

US assistant secretary of state Wendy Sherman and Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov
US assistant secretary of state Wendy Sherman will hope to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis when she begins talks with the Russian delegation, led by deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov © AP

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said this week that President Joe Biden believed the Geneva talks could “make progress on some issues, while others are not viable” — and that the US would not be “responding” to Moscow’s demands “point by point”.

“We don’t know what next week’s conversations will bring but . . . we believe there are areas we can make progress on with Moscow . . . if they come to the table ready to do that,” she added.

Biden is under growing pressure to defuse a crisis that threatens to ensnare his administration as it is trying to focus on other issues, mainly tackling the surging Omicron coronavirus variant and calming inflation.

At the same time, the White House knows that any suggestion of it having caved to Russian demands would undermine its own claims of standing up to authoritarian leaders, likely trigger a bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill and ring alarm bells among allies around the world that rely on US security guarantees.

The Russian delegation, led by deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, will also meet Nato officials on Wednesday in Brussels and members of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe the following day. But Moscow has made clear that it sees the US as its primary negotiating partner, and that Nato allies will follow Washington’s lead.

“We hope . . . for a fairly quick result,” Ryabkov told Izvestiya newspaper on Thursday. “It will become clear whether rapid progress is possible . . . on the subjects that interest us.”

R. Politik’s Stanovaya said Putin would only be satisfied with concrete progress in Geneva, given the extent to which Nato has already expanded into the former Soviet eastern Europe.

“In reality, no one knows what will be enough . . . because it’s clear Putin won’t get everything on his list,” she added. “But on this first stage . . . some sort of concession on the part of the US will be necessary.”

Complicating Sherman’s brief is the absence from the talks of both Ukraine and the EU, both of which have demanded a role in the talks but been successfully sidelined by Moscow.

US officials have repeatedly stressed that no discussion of Ukraine can take place without Ukrainian present, and that European security was a matter for Europe and Nato. But ruling out both of those topics would leave little to discuss.

The co-ordination between the US and Europe is complicated by persistent divides within the EU over both how to handle Russia, and Brussels’ role in the continent’s defence and security.

France and Germany, who held their own talks in Moscow this week, are viewed with scepticism by some eastern EU states which see them as too willing to find an accommodation with the Kremlin. France is also leading a push to expand the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ and defence capabilities, a move that is opposed by other member states who reject anything that would weaken Nato’s role as their primary security guarantee.

“The US and the Europeans . . . need a shopping list of what they want, not just what Russia wants,” said Dempsey at Carnegie Europe. “This [summit] is precisely about what Russia wants. We still do not know what [the west] wants from Russia.”

“We are going to the table with nothing,” she added. “Absolutely nothing in our hands.”

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