Talks have begun with the US over Ukraine crisis, but the Kremlin is playing a long game

Talks have begun with the US over Ukraine crisis, but the Kremlin is playing a long game
Talks on several key issues have begun with the December 7 summit between US President Joe BIden and Russia's Vladimir Putin, which is a good sign, but no breakthroughs were made. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 8, 2021

The Kremlin was unusually slow to release statements following the two-hour summit on December 7 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden, but said that talks have begun on the key issues and would continue on all the substantial issues later the same day.

The two presidents met as tensions soared in November as the US intelligence services reported a massive build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine’s border that they claimed could be a prelude to a second invasion. The Kremlin has denied repeatedly that it intends to attack Ukraine, but Putin skirted around the accusation during his tête-à-tête by video conference, according to comments by those that listened in to the call, keeping the pressure on the US.

There was no breakthrough during the conversation, but the Kremlin said that the fact that talks had begun was a positive development and both leaders tasked their diplomatic teams to “follow up” after the conference was over.

Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told Russian media that Putin didn’t mention any possibility of sending Russian forces into Ukraine. In the eyes of the White House, the call didn’t put those fears to rest.

Putin appears to have taken a decision to force the relations between the West and Nato into the spotlight and is striving for a concrete new relationship that includes “legal guarantees” from Nato that will preclude Ukraine’s future membership of Nato, among other things.

Putin is not expected to withdraw the troops from their new westward positions as the negotiations continue, but the two leaders did make some progress, promising to work together on other issues such as cybersecurity, arms controls and international geopolitical problems where they have overlapping interests, according to comments from top Kremlin aides.

“#Putin-#Biden video call has been useful. Acknowledging each other’s security concerns is key. Reviving channel on UA can help avoid misunderstanding. Coop on Iran is symbolic of positive agenda. War fears in West will not subside just yet, but jaw jaw is better than war war,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center said in a tweet.

Putin offered Biden no explicit denials of Russian troop movements or their “threatening” nature, according to  the Kremlin’s readout of the meeting. At the same time, that both Kremlin and White House readouts said the two leaders tasked their teams to follow up on the December 7 discussions is encouraging, which is progress as Putin’s goal in this meeting was to get Russia’s concerns over Nato’s expansion onto the Biden agenda and he seems to have achieved that. However, that didn't extend to Biden offering the “legally binding guarantees from Nato that Putin is demanding, although Biden did agree to talk about the issue.

“If true, it is also encouraging that, almost half an year after promising to condition his further interaction with Putin upon his review of implementation of the agreements, which they have reached at the June summit, in six months after that in-person meeting, Biden apparently decided that US will “continue practical cooperation in the criminal procedural and operational-technical areas of the fight against cybercrime” with Russia, according to the Kremlin’s readout, reports Simon Saradzhyan, research Russia at Harvard's Belfer Center.

“Finally, I’d note that neither side mentioned any US criticism of Russia’s domestic affairs during the call in what reflects more continuity with Trump than Obama on that issue,” Saradzhyan said in a note following the end of the summit.

Kremlin readout details

The Kremlin readout (Russian) of the meeting was eventually released later in the evening and was more extensive than the terse note issued by the White House following the end of the summit.

The Russian said little about the key issue on the agenda, Russian demands for a guarantee that Nato would not invite Ukraine to join, but did give more details on the places where progress was made. The full text said:

“In particular, they talked about the implementation of the results of the Russian-American summit held in Geneva in June 2021. The importance of consistent implementation of the agreements reached at the highest level and the preservation of the "spirit of Geneva" when considering issues of bilateral relations and other problems arising between Russia and the United States was noted.

In this context, the presidents recalled the alliance of the two countries during the Second World War. They emphasised that the sacrifices made then should not be forgotten, and the alliance itself should serve as an example for building contacts and working together in today's realities.

The predominant place in the conversation was occupied by problems related to the internal Ukrainian crisis and the lack of progress in the implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreements, which are the uncontested basis for a peaceful settlement. The President of Russia, using specific examples, illustrated the destructive line of Kyiv, aimed at the complete dismantling of the Minsk agreements and agreements reached in the "Normandy format", expressed serious concern about Kyiv's provocative actions against Donbas.

Joseph Biden, for his part, emphasised the allegedly “threatening” nature of the movements of Russian troops near the Ukrainian borders and outlined sanctions measures that the United States and its allies would be ready to apply in case of further escalation of the situation.

In response, Vladimir Putin stressed that the responsibility should not be shifted onto the shoulders of Russia, since it is Nato that is making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory and is building up its military potential at our borders. Therefore, Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees that exclude Nato's eastward expansion and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in states adjacent to Russia.

The leaders agreed to instruct their representatives to engage in substantive consultations on these sensitive issues.

When exchanging views on information security, both sides emphasised the importance of an actively ongoing dialogue on this topic. They expressed their readiness to continue practical co-operation in the criminal procedural and operational-technical areas of the fight against cybercrime.

The state of affairs around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme was considered. The President of Russia noted the importance of its full implementation within the initially agreed framework. The leaders expressed the hope that the negotiations on this issue, resumed at the end of November in Vienna, will be held in a constructive spirit and will allow decisions acceptable to all participants to be reached.

The bilateral issues were discussed. It was stated that co-operation is still in an unsatisfactory state. This is manifested, in particular, in the difficulties experienced in their work by the "curtailed" diplomatic missions of both countries. Vladimir Putin stressed that all this is a consequence of the line of the American authorities, which five years ago began to practise large-scale restrictions, bans and mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, to which we are forced to react in a mirror-like manner. The Russian side proposed to nullify all the accumulated restrictions on the functioning of diplomatic missions, which could also serve to normalise other aspects of bilateral relations.

The Presidents expressed the opinion that, taking into account their special responsibility for maintaining international security and stability, Russia and the United States will continue dialogue and necessary contacts.

In general, the conversation was frank and businesslike.”

Some co-operation on other issues

The top Kremlin and US officials added to the two statements in comments during the course of the evening suggesting a dialogue is now open and there are a few areas of mutual co-operation.

While the two agreed to disagree on the Ukraine and Nato relations for the time being, more progress was made on Iran, where Moscow supports Tehran’s efforts to have the sanctions reimposed on the country by then-US president Donald Trump lifted again.

“The President [Biden] and President Putin had a good discussion on the Iran issue. It was productive. Russia and the United States actually worked well together, even in tense circumstances back in the 2014-2015 period, to produce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This is an area where Russia and the United States can continue to consult closely to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a post-summit briefing on December 7.

Putin also noted the importance of the full implementation of the JCPOA deal within the originally agreed framework in his comments and this is an issue the US and Russia will work on further.

While Biden refused to talk about a new security deal that includes Nato, in a key concession the US president did suggest that negotiations on the issue could begin.

Sullivan fleshed this point out in his post-summit briefing, saying: “The straightforward notion that the United States, flanked by our European allies and partners, would be prepared to talk to Russia about strategic issues in the European theatre that was on the table and we are prepared to do that, as we’ve been prepared to do that throughout both the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. What the right mechanism for that is, what the agenda for that is, and what comes of that that is all to be worked out as we see how things proceed in the coming days.”

However, tensions remain high and Sullivan made it clear that any further provocations by Russia against Ukraine would lead Nato to beef up its own forces in the vicinity, although both Nato and US have made it clear there is no possibility of foreign forces coming to Ukraine’s rescue should Russia invade the country.

“We would fortify our Nato Allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation [if Russia invades Ukraine] … In the event that there is a further invasion into Ukraine… many of our partners on the eastern front  our Baltic allies, Romania, Poland, other countries will be increasingly concerned about the security and territorial integrity of their countries. They will be seeking, we expect, additional capabilities and potentially additional deployments, and the United States will be looking to respond positively to those things in the event that there is a further incursion into Ukraine,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan reiterated that catastrophic sanctions would be brought down on Russia if it attacks Ukraine and the US is putting pressure on Germany to block Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as part of a package of sanctions that would be implemented in the event of an attack.

“If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” said Sullivan. The same day, Victoria Nuland, senior US state department official, said she thought Germany was ready to partake in significant actions against Russia if Putin were to invade Ukraine.

The House of Representatives raced on Tuesday to pass a $768bn defence policy bill after lawmakers abruptly dropped proposals that would have imposed sanctions for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, in a late-year drive to salvage a bipartisan priority.

Arms control still on the agenda

During their December 7 video conference call Biden and Putin discussed the US-Russia dialogue on strategic stability and arms control, which is one of the few areas the two sides share common ground. At the same time Biden and Putin had a “separate dialogue on ransomware,” which is a topic that featured prominently during the Geneva talks.  

When exchanging views on information security[1], both sides emphasised the importance of an actively ongoing dialogue on this topic and expressed their readiness to continue practical co-operation in the criminal procedural and operational-technical areas of the fight against cybercrime.  

The two presidents discussed difficulties which the “curtailed” diplomatic missions of both countries experience in their work. As part of a tit-for-tat exchange earlier this year both sides ejected several diplomats and Russia banned Russian nationals from working in the US embassy, on which the latter is very dependent.  

In a gesture of goodwill, Putin proposed to “nullify all the restrictions on the functioning of diplomatic missions,” which have accumulated, in what could also help to normalise other aspects of the bilateral relations, according to the readout.  

“President Biden is open to creating functioning diplomatic missions in both countries, but he didn’t make any specific commitments with respect to the best pathway to do that. What he said was that, as leaders, President Biden and President Putin should direct their teams to figure out how we ensure that the embassy platform in Moscow is able to function effectively and as we believe the embassy platform here in Washington is able to operate effectively for the Russians,” said Sullivan.

"There was little evidence of any personal hostility between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin. In a brief video clip of the virtual meeting’s start posted online by Russian state media, the two leaders appeared to exchange friendly greetings, with the American president, who prides himself on his rapport with foreign leaders, smiling and waving to his Russian counterpart and telling him, 'Good to see you again',” reports Sardzhyan.  

Kremlin aide Ushakov says it's too early to draw conclusions from the talks after the event. “Fixing problems in US-Russia ties is not work of one month and perhaps not of one year either,” Ushakov said.