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Peeking Past the Pall Put Over Arms Talks With Russia

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Richard Haass: At Some Point, Putin Will Have To Decide What He Wants The United States and Russia concluded security talks Monday as part of a diplomatic effort to defuse tensions over a Russian ...
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Western media are painting an image of gross failure for Russia at the U.S.-Russia bilateral talks in Geneva, as well as subsequent talks between Russia and NATO in Brussels and the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna.

Adamant! is the impression being fostered by both Russia and the West (largely for domestic consumption): Russia will continue to oppose NATO membership for countries like Ukraine and Georgia; NATO, for its part, will continue to reject Russian opposition as "none of your business". (Bear in mind that Ukraine and Georgia are each several years away from qualifying for NATO membership in any case.)

The corporate media takeaway is that Russian President Vladimir Putin abjectly failed to get the West to agree formally on no further expansion of NATO and that, in these circumstances, no one can divine how he might lash out (maybe invade Ukraine?). World War III, anyone?

Did Western pundits really believe that Putin expected early acquiescence to that "non-starter" proposal on NATO expansion? Far easier to make believe he did, show how he went down to defeat, and conveniently ignore signs of real progress with respect to what Moscow's (and President Joe Biden's) actual priorities are.

Media mention of those priorities has inched forward into subordinate clauses of lead paragraphs - usually after the word "but." Here's how NPR played it: "The United States and NATO rejected key Russian security demands for easing tensions over Ukraine but left open Wednesday the possibility of future talks with Moscow on arms control, missile deployments and ways to prevent military incidents between Russia and the West."

Likewise, the Washington Post: "The United States and Russia remained deadlocked after crisis talks Monday over Moscow's desire to block any future NATO expansion to the east, but officials agreed to continue discussions on other high-stakes security issues

Other High-Stakes Security Issues?

What strategic challenge does President Vladimir Putin consider most threatening? Watching this 12-minute video - especially minutes 4 to 6:30 - in which Putin tries to get through to Western reporters several years ago, will provide a good clue for Western reporters whose dogs ate their homework.

While Putin has been outspoken for 20 years on the precarious strategic situation following the Bush administration's tearing up the ABM Treaty that had been the cornerstone of strategic balance, this video is unusually effective in showing Putin's understandable concern and frustration.

Are dogs the standard excuse? Do Western journalists even do homework? Good question. The NY Times' Bureau Chief in Moscow Anton Troianovsky has confessed that, after an event-packed week, he, Western officials, and Russian experts are "stumped" to explain Russian behavior. Putin, he says, is to blame for keeping people confused and "on edge", adding that "the mystery surrounding the Russian leader's intentions was thick as fog again this week".". (See: Putin's Next Move on Ukraine Is a Mystery. Just the Way He Likes It.)

It is precisely in this context that watching Putin explain Russia's post-demise-of-the-ABM-Treaty concerns five years ago might help lazy or simply inexperienced journalists understand the importance of highly significant events over the past couple of weeks: first and foremost, President Joe Biden's promise to Putin on Dec. 30 not to emplace offensive strike missiles in Ukraine. And, equally instructive: the importance of the U.S. negotiators' confirming that Washington takes Moscow's concerns seriously enough to negotiate about them - and other confidence building measures, as well.

"Progress": The Forbidden Word

Is it unreasonable, then, to look forward to productive bilateral talks in the coming months that address what might be termed "Putin's Pet Peeve" (although the issue is dead serious, so to speak, far more serious than the commonly understood "pet-peeve" minor annoyance)? A lot of this comes through clearly in the video, which shows Putin losing his cool watching the sleepy nonchalance on the faces of the Western journalists who are his audience: "I don't know how to get through to you any more."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
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