On Monday, vital Russia-U.S. talks will start in Geneva. Russia’s delegation will be headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and the U.S. by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
These are ‘precursor’ negotiations–‘talks about talks’, in the old strategic arms limitation treaties (SALT) terminology. Russia is driving the pace. The U.S. is in reactive mode, trying unsuccessfully to slow things down, to trim Russia’s sails. So far they are not succeeding.
Russia’s best-case scenario for Monday is this: Successful precursor talks will be followed soon after by substantive, detailed foreign minister level negotiations, led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with participation of top military brass from both sides.
Russia is seeking detailed U.S.-Russia agreements on mutual security guarantees in Europe.
Unusually, Russian drafts of these agreements were handed over by Russia to the U.S. and at the same time made public on Dec. 17. Russia will want to achieve these solemn written mutual commitments, as well-summarized by Patrick Lawrence in Consortium News on Dec. 28:
- NATO will cease all efforts to expand eastward, notably into Ukraine and Georgia.
- NATO guarantees that it will not deploy missile batteries in nations bordering Russia.
- An end to NATO military and naval exercises in nations and seas bordering Russia.
- The effective restoration of the treaty covering intermediate-range nuclear weapons. The U.S. abandoned the INF pact in August 2019.
- An ongoing East-West security dialogue.
These desired agreements would be backed up by early NATO-Russia negotiations in Brussels to achieve corresponding agreements at that level. Finally, the two presidents would formally seal the deal.
Russia’s worst-case scenario: that if the U.S. fails to negotiate towards this complete package–if the U.S. tries in its usual way to equivocate, delay, or cherry-pick Russia’s proposed deal–Russia will terminate the talks.
Russia-U.S. and Russia-NATO relations would then enter the deepest of deep freezes since the worst years of Cold War One. Russia would focus its economic and diplomatic resources entirely on relations with the East and South–backstopped by the Belt and Road Initiative of its reliable friend China. Russia would effectively stop trying to dialogue with U.S. and NATO Europe and call the U.S. bluff on enhanced sanctions.
On the now highly militarized Russia-NATO frontier, armies, navies and tactical intermediate range missile forces (sufficient to destroy most of Europe and European Russia) would confront each other. Risks of East-West war by provocation or accident would be far greater than in the years 1989-2014, before the sharp deterioration in East-West relations brought about by the U.S.-backed, 2014 Ukraine coup.
Time Running Out
These present talks instigated by Russia are thus really the Last Chance Saloon: the last opportunity maybe for decades to pursue relaxation of East-West tensions–‘détente’, in the old, nearly forgotten word of late Cold War One. Russia has had enough of years of creeping security deterioration and has drawn its red lines.
These are not in my view ‘ultimatums’ though they do demand major military pullbacks by the U.S. and NATO not matched by Russia, because almost all Russian forces are within Russian territory. In my view these proposed written agreements would enhance European and global security if achieved.
In 2021, Russia decided that it has had enough of decades of Western duplicity and creeping aggression, as persuasively analyzed by Marshall Auerback in The Scrum, Dec. 1, 2021.
Russia has seen how under successive U.S. presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden, a strategically destructive pattern of U.S. and NATO behavior had emerged since 1999, when President Bill Clinton welshed on the 1989-91 agreements between Reagan and George H.W. Bush with Gorbachev, that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe following the reunification of Germany. ‘Though there was no formal written treaty as such, subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were well founded in numerous written contemporaneous memcons and telcons (formal written records of conversations) at the highest levels.
As the West offered soothing words and prevarications, NATO expanded, first with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1999. There were further large expansions in 2004 and 2009, bringing NATO right up against Russia’s Western frontiers. Provocatively, NATO then listed Ukraine and Georgia as candidates for NATO membership.
The West successfully engineered an anti-Russia ‘colour revolution’ in Ukraine in 2014 and nearly succeeded in doing so in Belarus in 2020. It continued even to try to subvert Russia itself through lavish funding of anti-government human rights NGOs. Military and naval maneuvers and build-ups continued on Russia’s Western approaches.
An angry Russia saw every expansion and interference as Western betrayals and as violations of its sovereignty and strategic depth. Russia was initially too weak to do anything about it. As Putin rebuilt Russian strength and morale, Russia began to fight back: first in Georgia in 2008, then in Crimea and East Ukraine in 2014, and in Belarus since 2020.
World events have now decisively turned in Russia’s favor. The global strategic balance is shifting. China firmly has Russia’s back, as seen in recent statements by President Xi Jinping and China’s Foreign Minister. China has repelled Western regime-change pressures in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and around Taiwan. Iran has joined the Belt and Road initiative. The West was expelled from Afghanistan. Syria has somewhat stabilized.
Russia and China see now that they are stronger against their common Western adversary if they stand together. Important non-Western powers and groupings such as India, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN are quietly adjusting their diplomacy to suit. The Quad is dead in the water, and AUKUS is a diplomatic joke.
In publishing these draft treaty texts, Russia is appealing to the world outside the Atlantic alliance to see that its cause is just, and in accordance with the five principles of peaceful coexistence proposed by China to the non-aligned world in 1954.
These five principles as articulated by Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai first appeared in the Sino–Indian Agreement signed in April 1954, and subsequently at the Bandung Conference of non-aligned nations, which Indonesia hosted one year later. These principles are mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in the internal affairs of others, equality for shared benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These are very much the stated principles of current Russian foreign policy.
Quite suddenly, the West is on the diplomatic defensive. Its years of salami-slice aggression against Russia and China are now coming to an end.
For years since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West used the vital consensus agreed by Reagan and Gorbachev, that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, as cover for creeping aggression in Eastern Europe, violating and weakening Russia’s sphere of security.
Now, with the Russian initiative last week for the U.N. Security Council permanent five members to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev doctrine, with which the Western nuclear powers had perforce to agree, the tables have been turned.
Putin is in effect telling the West now: We all agree that none of us can allow military conflict between us to escalate to nuclear war. But we and China are strong enough now to defeat you in non-nuclear conflicts close to our borders, if you should be foolish enough to instigate such conflicts. These are the military facts of the matter: Russia could easily occupy Ukraine and China could easily occupy Taiwan. And you, the U.S. and NATO, could not stop this without risking nuclear war.
Putin has no wish to invade Ukraine but he is now determined to stop the erosion of Russia’s security. The new harder and more confident tone in Russian diplomatic language is unmistakable. A confused West has not yet worked out how to respond. Urgent talks have taken place between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and between the U.S. and NATO. One hopes that Biden has been preparing the ground for a prudent Western accommodation. A wise old owl, he can smell the coffee.
Putin is now holding the strongest negotiating cards. My betting–indeed my hope–is that Russia will achieve its demanded mutual security guarantees in Europe in the coming weeks.
International security–Australia’s security–will be greatly strengthened if he succeeds.
Much could still go wrong. There are troublemakers in the Western bloc whose careers depend on maintaining East-West tensions at just below the level of war. They will try hard to subvert and derail Russia’s goals.
In Australia, as in the U.S., there is almost complete public ignorance of this subject matter. Be prepared for massive disinformation in the coming weeks from the partly Pentagon and State Department funded think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and from mainstream media, hysterically whipping-up alleged threats of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. This propaganda offensive, turning Russia’s defensive posture into aggression, is already under way, especially in the U.S.
Australia sadly no longer has the intellectual resources for an informed and balanced public discussion of these momentous developments. Ignorance and groundless fears of Russia prevail. Dissenting voices such as mine have been marginalized and almost silenced.
One might hope there is more reality-based knowledge in the national security community. But if there is, they are not telling the public. I fear that there too, ignorance and prejudice have taken hold. We are perilously leaving the strategic thinking on Russia to our Big Brother in Washington.
Tony Kevin is a former Australian senior diplomat, having served as ambassador to Cambodia and Poland, as well as being posted to Australia’s embassy in Moscow. He is the author of six published books on public policy and international relations.