A lot, loudly, in a hurry. How Russia could agree with NATO

Written by The Frontier Post

Vladimir Frolov

With such a swing of Russian demands, the problem of “shortage of achievements” and “inappropriate modesty of the final result” arises in comparison with the efforts expended. There is almost no room left for declaring victory if what can be obtained is much less than what was demanded. This is a political issue that needs to be calculated before making your claim public.

For a month now, Russian foreign policy has been conducting an active strategic offensive to finally stop NATO’s eastward expansion. It can be considered a conditional beginning on November 18, when Vladimir Putin at the expanded collegium of the Russian Foreign Ministry gave instructions “to definitely raise the issue of seeking to provide Russia with serious long-term guarantees of ensuring our security.” Thus, Moscow seeks to complete the revision in its favor of the conditions for the end of the Cold War, which began in Crimea in 2014. The proposed tectonic shift in European politics is framed as a solution to the “crisis around Ukraine” on Russian terms.

Extended Minsk

The Russian president concretized his intention on December 1, speaking at the ceremony of presenting his credentials: “In dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on the development of specific agreements that will exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close proximity to Russian territory. … We propose to start substantive negotiations on this score. I would like to emphasize that we need legal and legal guarantees, since our Western colleagues have not fulfilled their respective oral obligations. ”

Apparently, Moscow began to revise the line of “strategic patience” in relations with the West and Ukraine after NATO decided to grant Ukraine the status of “Enhanced Opportunities Partner” on June 12, 2020. Formally, this does not speed up the country’s entry into the alliance, but opens the door to what the Kremlin calls the “military development of the territory” of Ukraine. In Kiev, they started talking about their intention to achieve the status of a “key US ally outside NATO,” which would remove almost all restrictions on military cooperation with the Americans.

Combined with Western sanctions against the Russian Federation, stagnation in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the neutralization of Russian influence structures in Ukrainian politics and media, Moscow saw in this rapprochement between Kiev and NATO an alarming prospect for Ukraine’s transition to the western security orbit, while Russia will get bogged down in Donbass.

Moreover, even the implementation of the Minsk Agreements in the form Moscow needs will not allow Russia to achieve its strategic goals of keeping Ukraine in its orbit of influence. The reintegration of the Donbas republics into the Ukrainian political system will still not give Russia the right to veto Ukraine’s foreign and defense policy.

Kiev will be able to marginalize the republics, as Zelensky did with Medvedchuk, his party and TV channels. The Minsk agreements will destabilize Ukraine in the short term, but Kiev will quickly get used to it, and “NATO’s road to Ukraine, if not Ukraine to NATO” will be open. The fixation on Minsk prevented Moscow from solving other problems in Ukraine and made Russian relations with the West hostage to Kiev’s intrigues.

They saw the way out in reaching an agreement with the West directly on the final stop of NATO expansion, putting Ukraine in front of the need to normalize relations with Russia on Russian terms. To do this, it was necessary to create a lever of influence on Western leaders that would not allow them to brush aside Russian concerns.

It was the strengthening of the Russian military presence around Ukraine in 2021. According to Western assessments, it opened up a previously non-existent opportunity for the Russian leadership to conduct a lightning-fast and limited military operation against Ukraine, forcing Kiev to accept the final terms of the settlement.

That being said, the Russian military measures of 2021 should not be considered a bluff. Riding tank armies across the country and keeping them in the field is expensive, and the threat of using force does not work if its use is ruled out in advance.

Russia may have political goals in Ukraine, which can be achieved through a limited use of military force if other means do not work (for example, to impose new conditions for a peaceful settlement in Donbass on Kiev, or the recognition of Crimea as Russian, or a neutral status, as it was imposed on Finland after Second World War). The question is in the price, as well as in the accurate forecast, whether this price will become even higher in the future if nothing is done now.

Putin’s speeches in 2021 clearly show how Russia is advancing related demands to ensure the security of its western borders. These are new “red lines” for Ukraine, guarantees of non-expansion of NATO and “Finlandization” of the post-Soviet states, agreements on a new architecture of European security with the full participation of Russia. Together, this can be called an “expanded Minsk”, reflecting the shift of Russian “red lines” across Ukraine. Now it is not only Ukraine’s accession to NATO, but also the emergence of NATO infrastructure and bases on the territory of Ukraine without formal accession (“not Ukraine in NATO, but NATO in Ukraine,” as Carnegie Endowment analysts Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss write).

The path to negotiation

With the help of a military demonstration in 2021, Moscow entered into a direct discussion of its agenda with the United States. The online summit with Biden brought the first breakthrough – the American president agreed in a narrow circle of “main NATO allies” (the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy) to discuss with Russia at a high level its concerns regarding the alliance as a whole.

For Biden, this is still a small concession to de-escalate the situation for a while. But for himself, he immediately set a bad optics – Russia, as it were, imposed its own vision of how a new security architecture in Europe should be discussed, and the 5 + 1 format is a new Concert of Great Powers.

In Russia, they saw a breakthrough in the fact that the US admitted for the first time that Russia may have “concerns” about NATO expansion, although earlier they were brushed aside as far-fetched. The first comments confirmed Moscow’s inflated expectations, which were supported by the president himself, expressing the hope that “now we will be heard.”

At the same time, the prospects for such negotiations and their real format are still not clear, the meeting in the 5 + 1 format declared by Biden did not take place, and the White House immediately began to play back – the format of the negotiations will probably be in the Russia-NATO Council, which looks frivolous for Moscow.

The Americans have not yet proposed any new structure, and it is not a fact that Biden will be able to somehow get the 5 + 1 concept through NATO, which has already caused sharp rejection. Apparently, the American president suggested this in the calculation of stalling for time or even winding up the topic in endless discussions. Moscow does not yet understand how serious the partners’ approach is.

But Biden did not receive any concessions from Putin either – Moscow will not withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian borders. “They are on our territory and do not threaten anyone,” explained presidential aide Yuri Ushakov. For Russia, this is an important lever of pressure, and it is inappropriate to abandon it before serious progress is recorded in the negotiations.

Removing troops and then returning them is too expensive, they will remain ready for a military operation against Ukraine if the negotiations reach a dead end. At the same time, the United States intends to insist on the withdrawal of Russian troops as a condition for launching negotiations on European security, which can block everything at once.

Conflicting requests

At the same time, the diplomatic part of the Russian offensive turned out to be strangely defocused and overly assertive – especially in public. It is difficult to understand exactly what Russia is seeking. Do we demand legal guarantees for further non-expansion of NATO only to the east (that is, the former USSR), or “there should be no further expansion of NATO” (that is, nowhere)? Or is it generally enough to simply “officially disavow the decision of the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members”?

Do you need “a legal confirmation of the agreement on the non-deployment of the United States and other NATO countries of strike weapons systems that pose a threat to the Russian Federation, on the territory of neighboring countries, both members of the North Atlantic Alliance and not?” Greetings to Finland, which is purchasing 64 F-35A fighters from the United States and two hundred high-precision cruise missiles JASSM-ER with a range of more than 1000 km. And what are the weapons that pose a threat to Russia? This is too general a category. Or do we just want the United States to join our moratorium on the deployment of ground-based INF in Europe? What is proposed to be monitored?

Is it necessary to ban the deployment of the American missile defense system on the territory of Ukraine or remove the American missile defense facilities from Romania and Poland too? Do we want to limit NATO military exercises with Ukraine or ensure the withdrawal of operational exercise areas at an agreed distance from the NATO-Russia contact line?

Russia proposes to discuss all this in the framework of the Russian-American dialogue on strategic stability (for example, in the second subgroup on threats, which would be elegant – the United States and Russia decide European security for two)? Or within the OSCE? Or 2 + 2 consultations (foreign and defense ministers) with France and Italy (and with the United States, if thawed)? Or at the Vienna Security Cooperation Forum?

Moscow wants to quickly “clarify the chances of obtaining security guarantees and understand the seriousness of our partners”? Where to rush to concerns, which are almost thirty years old, because the military situation has not changed much? And what if the fast deadline is ignored?

Demands for “immediate launch of international negotiations to develop legally fixed guarantees” sound in Putin’s dialogue with Macron, as if the French cavalry were again near Moscow. In diplomatic practice, urgent peace negotiations are requested by a party on the brink of military defeat. There is some wrong optics and tonality.

The “Ukrainian agenda” has become blurred. Moscow has shown little interest in US statements about the intensification of the Donbas settlement, including pressure on Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements. Perhaps this week’s visit to Kiev and Moscow by Undersecretary of State for European Affairs Karen Donfried will bring some clarity, but signals that Zelensky has offered Biden interesting ideas for unblocking the Minsk agreements or “new formats” of settlement, which, most likely, are already behind the well-known initiatives to “upgrade Minsk” do not cause optimism. Kiev’s implementation of the “Steinmeier formula” without international border control is unlikely. The channel of the Russian-American dialogue on Ukraine is unclear: Donfried – Rudenko is not the same as Kozak – Nuland.

Putin’s demand for a legally binding agreement that would rule out any eastward NATO advance narrows the room for maneuver. It is difficult to imagine so far that the “partners” would be ready to discuss a ban on further NATO expansion (the opposite was stated at the meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Riga). Moreover, a “legally binding” ban (for the United States, these are treaties ratified by the Senate). So the first assessments of Russian requests are very skeptical.

There are doubts in Moscow as well. There are signals that no one is waiting for the satisfaction of unrealistic requirements, and that legal guarantees can take different forms – the main thing is that they are negotiable. This makes the partners think about the seriousness of Russian plans to negotiate and even assume that the diplomatic component here is nothing more than a cover operation, and a short negotiation deadline may indicate a limited time frame for making a decision on a military operation.

In any case, such increased diplomatic activity in the public field raises questions – after all, agreements on such sensitive topics are best discussed non-publicly. The issuance of ultimatums and the transition to threats do not always close the deal.

It is also alarming that Moscow’s rhetoric does not recognize the reciprocity of its proposed military-political restrictions for NATO countries and Ukraine. Peaceful initiatives of the USSR have always included reciprocal steps by the Soviet side. And in the current situation, Russia does not offer anything in return (except for repeating the old initiative on a moratorium on the deployment of the INF Treaty in Europe). But partners will demand reciprocity. Are we ready to disarm the Kaliningrad region and Crimea?

Moscow refuses to discuss its “events near the borders of Ukraine”, calling it “geopolitical impudence” of attempts to dictate to us what “we can or cannot do within our borders.” But isn’t this right we demand for ourselves in relation to NATO countries and Ukraine (and Georgia)?

Insisting on legal consolidation, do we want to return to the CFE Treaty era with zonal restrictions on military equipment, when during the counter-terrorist operation in the Caucasus, at first, we could not concentrate the required number of tanks and artillery? But our demands on NATO will return to their demands to limit something we need – for example, Iskander OTRK and anti-ship missile systems in the Kaliningrad region.

With such a swing of Russian demands, the problem of “shortage of achievements” and “inappropriate modesty of the final result” arises in comparison with the efforts expended. There is almost no room left for proclaiming victory if what you can get is much less than what you wanted and demanded. This is a political issue that needs to be calculated before making your application public. So far, only a promise to “talk about it” has been received.

Possible forms

It can be assumed that a military threat near the Ukrainian borders will spur discussion in the alliance about ending NATO expansion – especially if the issue is raised personally by Biden (and Macron). In the United States, this prospect was discussed at the expert level. Stopping NATO expansion even after absorbing the Western Balkans would look acceptable to Moscow. The question is how such a decision would be acceptable to both sides – so that it would not be necessary to rule the North Atlantic Treaty.

Is there a realistic format for how one could formalize a political commitment not to expand NATO towards Russia’s borders? There are two possibilities. The first is the appearance of a corresponding clause in the declaration of the NATO summit in 2022 in Madrid. It would say that the alliance will no longer expand eastward, and this political statement cancels all the previous ones. Thus, it would be possible to disavow the statement of the 2008 Bucharest summit, where it was promised that “Ukraine and Georgia will join NATO,” but keep the policy of “open doors” (something Russia is already proposing).

The second way is a similar point in the new NATO Strategic Concept (it is planned to be adopted at the Madrid Summit) or a combination of both formats. This would not give “legally binding guarantees”. The Strategic Concept and Declarations of NATO Summits are political documents and are subject to revision. But this declaration at the highest level would still give substantial confidence in stopping the expansion of the bloc.

NATO’s political commitment to Gorbachev in 1990 not to extend the alliance’s military infrastructure to the territory of the former GDR is still being fulfilled. This is better than an unspoken promise not to admit Ukraine to NATO for another ten years. Diplomacy is the art of the possible, and such a scenario, unlike others, is possible.

The reaction of the NATO leadership is still sharply negative, but Biden has not yet expressed himself. True, in any case, he will not be able to pass any “treaty-legal guarantees of non-expansion” through ratification in the Senate – the alignment there is now 51 to 50, but 67 to 33 is needed. Therefore, the nuclear deal with Iran was formalized as a political, not a treaty, obligation. Not to mention the fact that in the case of NATO, all 30 member states will have to ratify such treaty obligations.

However, it is necessary to hit precisely at this point, without being sprayed on auxiliary topics. The agreement to end NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia, no matter how it was formalized, is pivotal – it would open up other prospects for Russia’s relations with the West and Ukraine (and with Georgia) and at the same time, nothing (except for a change in rhetoric) would cost NATO countries …

A halt in expansion would have made possible direct negotiations between Moscow and Kiev on a final settlement based on the prevailing realities. An example here is the Paris Peace Treaty of the USSR and Finland of February 10, 1947, which not only fixed the territorial acquisitions of the USSR as a result of two wars, but also imposed significant restrictions on the size and armament of the Finnish army. As Fyodor Lukyanov notes, in this way the concept of “Finlandization” would again acquire a positive meaning.

If the parties succeed in reaching an understanding on the issue of NATO’s non-expansion to the east, then agreements on other “red lines” on Ukraine and arms control can be implemented rather quickly. For example, regarding the revision of the US and NATO exercises near the Russian borders with the abandonment of the most provocative formats, the Biden administration is already hearing Russian concerns.

As in the late 1960s, direct interaction between Moscow and Washington may set the political framework for future detente (without perestroika), in which agreements on European security will become possible. But the likelihood of escalation still remains – due to unrealistic requests with artificially short deadlines, as well as weak emphasis on diplomacy and excessive emphasis on the military side. 

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