US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appealed to his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to choose diplomacy over coercion in face-to-face discussions in Stockholm, but the meeting broke up after only 30 mins in a sign that the two sides remain far apart.
Blinken came with more sticks than carrots and repeated earlier warnings that Russia would face “serious consequences” if it attacked Ukraine, without specifying what exactly the West would do.
Blinken warned a day earlier at a Nato conference in Latvia that the US would impose “high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past” if Russia invaded its neighbour.
Amongst the most painful sanctions that Washington has so far held in reserve are banning US investors from buying or trading Russia international and especially the local Russian Ministry of Finance ruble-denominated OFZ treasury bills on the secondary market – the so-called “nuclear option.” Washington has also threatened in the past to cut Russia off from the international SWIFT messaging service that is the basis of international money transfers.
US Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez introduced possible harsh new sanctions on Russia to a defence spending bill that is about to go before the House that would provide a new and easier mechanism for the US president to slap Russia with sanctions should fighting break out.
In brief comments to the press after the meeting Lavrov told journalists that Russia’s offer to start talks on a new security deal and to answer questions about Nato movements close to the Russian border was not even considered by the US side and removed from the agenda.
The Russian foreign minister went on to say the talk was “fruitful” and "intense" and that Russia expressed its concerns and “they were heard, and that is very important.” Lavrov added they also briefly discussed the situation in Afghanistan, where the fear is of a migrant crisis and the spread of terrorists in Central Asia.
Lavrov set the cat among the pigeons saying “the echo of war can be heard” in Europe and accused Nato of refusing to consider Russia’s legitimate security concerns.
Blinken also said the two had had constructive talks, but from the comments both men made in their respective, and separate press conferences afterwards both sides did little more than lay out their respective positions.
Russia takes a tougher line
For his part, Lavrov has highlighted that Russia is taking a much tougher line since the start of this year after his new rules of the game speech, where he said that Russia would not tolerate any more sanctions “that cause economic damage” to it. Lavrov also said Russia was prepared to break off diplomatic relations with Europe if it continued to try to “punish” Russia and in October actually broke off diplomatic relations with Nato completely.
More recently the Kremlin has complained that Nato has been reinforcing its eastern partners and has been conducting large-scale exercises near Russia’s border, including flying nuclear capable bombers along its border as well as big naval exercises in the Black Sea. However, what concerns Moscow the most is the increase in military aid to Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin called a “red line” for Russia in a foreign policy speech in November.
As for the US claims of a build-up of Russian military assets on the Ukrainian border, the Kremlin as strenuously denied them and said it has no intention to attack anyone.
Walking back tensions
The meeting between the two foreign ministers was a chance to walk tensions back, but it seems to have failed.
"The best way to avert the crisis is through diplomacy," Blinken told reporters before going into talks with Lavrov, reported Reuters.
Blinken repeated that Moscow and Ukraine should fulfil their obligations under the 2014 Minsk peace process, which was designed to end a war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the east of the former Soviet republic.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the end of November called on Moscow to restart direct talks as the “only possible way” to end the undeclared war between the two countries. The suggestion was ignored by the Kremlin, which only said that Kyiv would open direct talks with the rebel leadership in Donbas, something that Kyiv has refused to do, saying they are only proxies for Russia.
Washington was willing to facilitate Russia and Ukraine carrying out the Minsk protocols, Blinken said, but "if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences".
Lavrov told reporters Moscow was ready for dialogue with Kyiv. "We, as President (Vladimir) Putin has stated, do not want any conflicts," he said.
30 minutes on the sidelines
The two men talked for about 30 minutes on the fringes of a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm, in the highest-level contact between the two sides since a summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden in June.
"Should Moscow choose the path of military escalation, the Secretary (Blinken) made clear that the United States and our allies are prepared to impose significant costs," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Reuters.
A senior State Department official said Blinken and Lavrov had a "serious, sober and business-like" meeting, but gave no details.
The official said there had been a constructive exchange on implementing the existing Minsk peace agreements for eastern Ukraine as a possible pathway out of the crisis, and further intense diplomacy was likely in coming days.
Claim and counter-claim
In the meantime tensions continue to grow. “The threat on our Western frontier is really growing,” Putin said a day earlier. “For us, this is more than serious.”
Experts say an actual frontal assault on Ukraine by Russia remains very unlikely as the Ukrainian army has become a lot stronger in the last seven years, but mainly because it would be extremely costly for Russia in terms of casualties and even more difficult to hold the territory once captured. However, limited action is possible.
Putin has also offered to start talks with Nato on “legal guarantees” that would limit Nato’s actions and co-operation with Kyiv, something the State Department has refused to consider so far. Russia already offered to negotiate a new pan-European security deal with the West in 2008, but the EU rejected it out of hand. During his foreign policy speech last week Putin ordered Russian diplomats to work on getting these security commitments from Nato and the West, but Lavrov reports that talks are going nowhere.
"The architecture of strategic stability is rapidly being destroyed, Nato refuses to constructively examine our proposals to de-escalate tensions and avoid dangerous incidents," Lavrov said.
The tensions began with a Washington Post report at the end of October citing the US intelligence services, but little other evidence has since emerged supporting the idea that Russia is “massing” troops ahead of an invasion.
Russia hit back with its own dose of scaremongering when Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on December 1 that Ukraine had moved over 125,000 soldiers – half of its active servicemen – up to the disputed region of Donbas, which would be a serious escalation if true.
“According to some reports, the number of troops… in the conflict zone already reaches 125,000 people, and this, if anyone does not know, is half of the entire composition of the Armed Forces of Ukraine," she said.
Zakharova also condemned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for submitting a bill to the national parliament that would allow units from foreign armed forces to enter the country as part of multinational exercises next year, which she says contradicts the Minsk agreements.
Ukraine’s foreign minister has denied Ukraine is considering retaking Donbas by force. Dmitry Kuleba denied all claims that his country’s troops could soon launch an offensive there and said Kyiv’s officials were “committed to finding a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict.”
Nevertheless, the Kremlin said on the day of the Blinken-Lavrov meeting that the probability of a new conflict in eastern Ukraine remained “high” and that Moscow was concerned by "aggressive" rhetoric from Kyiv and an increase in what it called provocative actions along the line of contact between government forces and the pro-Russian separatists.
Question marks hang over Zakharova’s comments, as Kyiv has repeatedly denied any intention of trying to take back the rebel regions by force, accusing Russia of spouting "propaganda nonsense" in order to provide cover for its own aggressive intentions.
Nato and Ukraine weigh in
The waters were further muddied last week when Zelenskiy accused Ukraine’s top oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, of being involved in a coup d'état plot that was supposed to happen on December 1, although subsequently those fears have already faded as that date passed without incident.
Russia hasn’t helped de-escalate and demonstrated Lavrov’s new harder line after it was announced on December 1, a day before the meeting, that more US diplomats were being asked to leave Russia following a round of tit-for-tat expulsions earlier this year.
The Kremlin’s new line seems to be all bad cop and very little good cop. The Kremlin is not prepared to make gestures any more and seems to be expecting the US to make the first concession.
Putin warned the West on November 30 not to cross Russia’s security “red line” by stationing Nato military infrastructure in Ukraine, which will force his country to respond by taking “countermeasures,” he said.
Blinken arrived in Stockholm from Riga, Latvia, where the Nato allies were meeting, and also issued stern warnings. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference that Russia could not claim any “spheres of influence” and that Ukraine is a sovereign state free to make its own choice. He followed up by saying he welcomes Ukraine desire to eventually join Nato.
“Any future Russian aggression against Ukraine would come at a high price and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference following a day of meetings among allied foreign ministers in Riga, as cited by Reuters.
“The situation in and around Ukraine remains fluid and unpredictable,” Stoltenberg said. “There is no certainty about Russia’s intentions. We see a significant and unusual concentration of forces, which is unjustified and unexplained, and accompanied by heightened rhetoric and disinformation. And we know that Russia has used force before against Ukraine and other neighbours.”
When asked what steps Nato could take in response to a Russian attack on Ukraine, Stoltenberg suggested that Nato would take no military action, but would certainly respond with economic sanctions.
“Nato is a platform to make decisions but also to consult and co-ordinate efforts by Nato allied countries,” he said. “So for instance, on economic sanctions, political reactions, even though Nato doesn’t necessarily make the decisions to impose sanctions, that’s for individual allies to do, and for the European Union … the political discussion we have here is actually shaping the decisions we take as individual allies.”
“Therefore also economic sanctions and political reactions is part of what we have discussed today, also with the United States,” Stoltenberg said. “We represent 50% of the world’s GDP and of course it matters when Nato allies discuss also the use of economic sanctions against the behaviour of Russia.”
“We have seen our resolve and our willingness and our ability to maintain, sustain such economic sanctions when needed. I think that Russia actually underestimated the resolve of Nato allies to impose sanctions and sustain sanctions after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Stoltenberg concluded.