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Can U.S. Ease Russia’s Security Concerns?

Jan 19, 2022
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

During their first meeting in June, U.S. President Joe Biden proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and Russia should establish a “stable and predictable relationship.” The proposal that was well-received. However, no concrete measures have been put forward other than the holding of strategic consultations. Nor have bilateral relations shown any signs of detente since then.

Russia has been working actively to steer the dynamics in its favored direction. Early last month, it began amassing troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, fueling tensions to an almost explosive level. The U.S. warned that should Russia use force against Ukraine, the U.S. would impose tough economic and financial sanctions on Russia — a “heavy price.”

Russia denied that it plans to launch an invasion and urged the U.S. and NATO to provide legally binding guarantees to halt NATO’s expansion into Ukraine and the deployment of weapons in Eastern Europe.

In the middle of last month, Russia submitted to the U.S. a draft treaty on security guarantees, along with a draft agreement on security guarantees between the Russian Federation and NATO members. The two documents specify Russia’s security demands, which include halting NATO’s eastward expansion, suspending U.S. and allied military assistance to Ukraine, permanently freezing NATO military bases and weapons systems on the territory of the former Soviet Union and prohibiting the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Russia published the two drafts in full to preempt any leaking or distortion by the U.S. side.

The two heads of state held a teleconference at the end of December on Putin’s suggestion, during which it was agreed that Russia and the United States would hold strategic stability talks in Geneva, followed by talks between Russia and NATO in Brussels. These were to be followed by an extended Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Vienna on 13 January, hosting both the U.S. and European countries.

Multiple factors are driving Russia. The first is that Russia has been pushed into a corner. During his presidency, Putin has witnessed four NATO expansions eastward, so that now NATO forces are stationed literally on Russia's doorstep, with NATO military aircraft and ships constantly provoking incidents along the Russian border.

Second, Ukraine has become Russia’s last buffer zone. Western military advisers, weapons and ammunition are pouring into Ukraine. Moscow is left with few options. In the event that Ukraine gains access to NATO-supplied missiles, an attack could reach Moscow in four to five minutes.

Third, for the past two years, Ukraine has not only failed to implement the Minsk Agreement, but rather has been seeking to overturn it. Russia is deeply convinced that the Ukraine issue cannot be solved without fundamentally cutting off U.S. military support.

Fourth, global strategic stability is in jeopardy. Russia has to face the rude reality of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF and the Open Skies Treaty.

Currently, Russia has to figuratively cross the Rubicon and use military power as a means to keep talks alive. Putin recently warned that Russia has “no room for retreat” if the West continues its “aggressive behavior.” Russia stands ready to respond with appropriate military means.

Rather than rejecting Russian security concerns, Biden has supported negotiations. The U.S. has several considerations on its mind.

First, it has no significant national security interest in Ukraine. Although the U.S. is committed to maintaining Ukraine's territorial and sovereign integrity, it will not expend significant financial or human resources to intervene in its internal affairs, much less send troops to defend Ukraine against Russia. 

Second, there are certain criteria for Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations. When it expanded in 1995, NATO specified the conditions required to admit new members, including that applicant should first resolve “ethnic or external territorial disputes.” The current situation in Ukraine threatens to delay its accession to NATO indefinitely, although the door of NATO is not shut altogether. In this regard, the U.S. side has made it clear that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is not possible in the next decade.

In September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the U.S. with several goals in mind, including securing progress on Ukraine’s NATO membership. He wants Washington to follow the “Normandy model” of talks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine at an early date, and explore what sort of concessions the Biden administration is willing to make on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Zelensky’s three issues did not get clarity from the U.S. side, and he left empty-handed. Zelensky’s visit to the U.S. was an important indicator of the U.S. position on a range of issues concerning Ukraine.

The existing global strategic stability needs to be rebalanced. The Trump administration’s arbitrary withdrawal from multilateral treaties has caused damage and lends some legitimacy to Russia’s concerns.

Finally, a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia is in national strategic interest of the U.S., and it needs to mobilize all available resources so that it can focus its energy on competition and confrontation on the Eastern front.  

Of course, in addition to the external factors that contribute to the U.S.-Russian approach to negotiations, it is also important to recognize obstacles, such as structural contradictions, the trust deficit and the constraints faced by the Biden administration from anti-Russia elements.

All these factors dictate that U.S.-Russia negotiations will not be clear sailing. Neither will the U.S. side accept Russia’s security requirements in their entirety; otherwise, the draft document provided by the Russian side would be a de facto ultimatum. So it is only reasonable to predict a complex bargaining process.

Unsurprisingly, the recent U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue, the third round of its kind, only reaffirmed their respective positions and did not pull off any breakthrough. It is not far-fetched to assume that the dialogues in Brussels and Vienna will follow the same pattern.

However, the U.S. and Russia have not closed the door on dialogue. Russia reiterated that it will not threaten any party and will not issue ultimatums to anyone. It believes that it’s still possible to reach an agreement, though this will require compromise on both sides and respect for the common interests of the two countries. The U.S. side said that if Russia takes measures to ease the tension and withdraws its troops deployed on the Russian-Ukrainian border, discussions on all issues will proceed faster and deeper.

Let’s wait and see what course the negotiations take, and whether they can land a solution acceptable to both sides.  

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