American and Russian top diplomats meet in Geneva today in another attempt to ease tensions over the military build-up on Russia’s border with Ukraine.This content was published on January 21, 2022 - 08:30
The United States secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva today. The meeting follows three rounds of inconclusive talks between American and Russian diplomats held last week at the US diplomatic mission in Geneva, then at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and the OSCE in Vienna. The discussions aim to ease tensions at Russia’s border with Ukraine, where some 100,000 Russian troops are positioned.
US officials say they fear a Russian attack on Ukraine could be imminent. But Russia denies making such plans. It has laid out demands to the United States and NATO that include guarantees that NATO halt its eastward expansion and put an end to its military activities in Eastern Europe. Washington considers such demands as unacceptable.
“I think those [Russian demands] are pretty much non-starters in terms of reaching any kind of official agreement. So if that's really the issue here, then there's a big problem,” says Jussi Hanhimäki, a professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
“The situation is very unsettled and unsettling,” says Charles Adams, a former US ambassador to Finland, who now lives in Geneva. But “they wouldn't be meeting and wouldn't be talking unless both sides were hopeful of a positive outcome,” he says.
Adding to an already tense situation, Russia deployed troops earlier this week to Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbour, for joint military exercises. On the US side, Blinken travelled to Kiev on Wednesday to meet with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and show US support for the country.
Prior to the meeting in Geneva, Moscow said it expects written answers to its demands from Washington. Blinken has said that he would not provide such answers.
“We have tried to make clear that there’re two paths for Russia. There’s the path of diplomacy and dialogue to try to resolve whatever differences there are peacefully… But there is also the path, if Russia chooses to renew aggression, of confrontation and consequences,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday.
A deadlock or some informal mutual understanding?
The apparent deadlock has led to questions over whether today’s talks could constitute a last chance meeting.
Bold public statements made on both sides need to be taken with a “grain of salt,” Hanhimäki says. “Whatever gains Russian negotiators are trying to get out of this, are going to come through diplomatic channels,” he adds. But the public may not know about them right away.
Adams agrees and asks: “Is it possible that unbeknownst to the public, there were in the meetings last week some unreported beginnings of some sort of a mutual unwritten understanding, as to what has to happen or not?” He thinks both parties may provide tacit assurances: possibly about the unlikelihood of NATO’s eastward expansion, together with a suggestion that the Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s border may eventually be removed. And, he adds, a failure to reach such a mutual understanding would be alarming.
A Russian attack on Ukraine would trigger major economic sanctions by the West. Blinken met on Thursday with German, British, and French officials in Berlin to coordinate potential measures.
The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, warned Russia on Tuesday about the economic cost of a military intervention in Ukraine. Sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – which runs from Russia to Germany – cannot be ruled out, he said.
Tensions are high, and the situation is not without risk, according to diplomats and observers.
“There's pressure in Russia not to back down, and that's really the danger here,” says Hanhimäki. A small incident on Ukraine’s border could trigger a military response and an escalation of the conflict, he adds.
A path forward
So what outcome can the public expect from today’s meeting? Neither Adams nor Hanhimäki expect a breakthrough announcement in Geneva, but rather hope an informal understanding may emerge, an acceptance that escalating this crisis is in nobody’s interest.
“What you might see in terms of actual agreements might be related to the deployment of nuclear weapons. There are a number of areas where there could be common ground. [But] Ukraine is not necessarily the one at the moment,” says Hanhimäki, who expects more negotiations to take place over the coming weeks or months.
“The diplomatic path is simply that bad things do not happen… If nothing happens, it's a good thing. And that will be the diplomatic way forward,” says Adams.
Ignazio Cassis, Switzerland’s president and foreign minister, will be in Geneva too to hold bilateral talks with Blinken and Lavrov after they meet. A conference on reforms on UkraineExternal link is due to be held in the southern Swiss town of Lugano in July 2022.
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