Russian militarisation around Ukraine has provoked antagonism with the United States, signalling a return of the tense debacle between the two superpowers. Crucial bilateral talks held on January 10th highlighted the irreconcilable standpoints of Russia and the US over the future of NATO and the issue of military deployments across Eastern Europe. This impasse has heightened tensions, particularly in the wake of suspicions that Russia intends to invade Ukraine. Ukraine has been excluded from these negotiations, however, entrenching it in a position of acute insecurity.
The ongoing security crisis was triggered when the Kremlin issued a string of demands that entailed - if the United States and its allies were to agree - the re-establishment of Russia’s historic sphere of influence and a return to Soviet-era border boundaries. It also seeks to halt all instances of Western military action and deployment in those previously Warsaw Pact but now NATO nations. Russia has also demanded the withdrawal of all US nuclear weapons from Europe, which it deemed to have a threatening presence. The forms and exact locations of these weapons have, however, been static for decades, begging the question of why now?
These demands have have been reinforced through the amassment of military forces around Ukraine’s eastern border and repeated threats to utilize unnamed forms of military means to safeguard what it deems its rightful security interests. The Biden administration has so far only responded with threats to impose financial and technological sanctions on the Kremlin if it chooses to act upon its threats, specifically in reference to Ukraine. The United States has so far not seen evidence credible enough to prove the claims on the shifting nuclear weapons or a potential asymmetric attack.
Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, who was present on behalf of the Russian delegation at the negotiations, strongly insisted that it was essential that Ukraine “never, never, ever” became a member of NATO. This stance conflicted with that of Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, who reasserted the US wouldn't adhere to such a demand and offered this assurance: “we will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open door policy.” This heavily suggests that the US would defend Ukraine’s right to join NATO and has no tolerance for Russia’s desire to forcefully alter international borders. Yet, despite the frenzied meetings, the situation is far from settled.
In spite of Russia mobilizing 100,000 troops (according to White House estimates) that now surround Ukraine on three fronts, Ryabkov continues to state that Russia possesses no intent to invade Ukraine. Moreover, he has warned that if the West fails to agree to Russia’s demands to decrease the presence of NATO in Eastern Europe, it would face a host of indeterminate ramifications that would jeopardize the “security of the whole European continent.” Ryabkov has employed ambiguous language, being both carefully appeasing and indirectly aggressive, resulting in American officials becoming deeply wary of a potential invasion.
Little progress has been made through bilateral talks to deescalate the security crisis from brewing in Eastern Europe. As NATO and the Biden administration prepare for worst-case scenarios about how the next few months may evolve, they are increasingly concerned about President Putin’s steps which may be more extensive than mobilizing troops over Ukraine’s border. Putin seeks to expand Russia’s sphere of influence to Eastern Europe and acquire written assurances that NATO will not expand again. If Putin is prevented from achieving this ambition, his advisers have implied during the negotiation process, he would unilaterally prioritize the security interests of Russia, having profound implications on the United States and Europe. Furthermore, there were hints during the diplomatic grueling that nuclear weapons may be held in close proximity to the US, slashing alert times in the case of a nuclear strike. The ramifications of such a reality has close parallels with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
This could cause immense disruption, or simply be the bullying and rhetoric of a Kremlin campaign of fear and pressure. It could also be an attempt by Putin to reiterate that, despite the US’s ‘pivot to Asia’, Russia obtains the capability to cause geopolitical change. Putin’s discourse is plagued with the language of warnings and threats directed at the West, stating that if they threatened or opposed Russia’s diplomatic goals they will face unpredictable consequences through Russia’s response. This refers to the asymmetric warfare that Russia may pursue if its diplomatic rivals threaten what they see to be their vital security activities.
The antagonism between the United States and Russia has been previously and historically resolved through talks and the two nations have never been at war over issues regarding borders and territory. This raises the question, are these negotiations merely “talks”? Ukraine has the threat of an invasion at its doorstep, a very real security dilemma. American, European and Russian diplomats quarrel, whilst Ukraine’s future is at stake. Diplomacy is critical to conflict solution, but it is gullible to suppose that Russia will negotiate in the best interests of Ukraine, or to assume that Russia wishes to obtain a purely diplomatic solution. Most recently, the US has accused Moscow of placing saboteurs in Eastern Ukraine to justify an invasion of Ukraine. This was the case in 2014, when Russia sent military forces in plain clothing into the Donbas region, raising questions over whether the patterns of 2014 will reoccur.
Russia’s military is well positioned to seize eastern Ukraine, a particularly likely threat if Ukraine joins NATO and the West doesn’t fulfill the Kremlin's demands. Russia is at an impasse with the West, clearly uninterested in partaking in meaningful diplomacy as the United States prepares to back an insurgency against Russia. An absence of American concessions has meant a failure to defend Ukrainian individuality and freedom, and a collapse in talks for Russia as they assert their sentiments on NATO. The key question is whether the West can diffuse Russian tensions and halt their ability to invade Ukraine through appeasement and negotiation, or whether war will return to eastern Europe in the Ukraine.