If ever a critical diplomatic negotiation was doomed to fail from the start, the discussions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and Russian security guarantees is it.
The two sides can't even agree on an agenda.
From the Russian perspective, the situation is clear: "The Russian side came here [to Geneva] with a clear position that contains a number of elements that, to my mind, are understandable and have been so clearly formulated including at a high level that deviating from our approaches simply is not possible," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the press after a pre-meeting dinner on Sunday hosted by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who is leading the U.S. delegation.
Ryabkov was referring Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands to U.S. President Joe Biden in early December regarding Russian security guarantees, which were then laid out by Moscow in detail in the form of two draft treaties, one a Russian-U.S. security treaty, the other a security agreement between Russia and NATO.
The latter would bar Ukraine from joining NATO and rule out any eastward expansion by the trans-Atlantic military alliance. At the time, Ryabkov tersely noted that the U.S. should immediately begin to address the proposed drafts with an eye to finalizing something when the two sides meet. Now, with the meeting beginning on Monday, it doesn't appear as if the U.S. has done any such thing.
"The talks are going to be difficult," Ryabkov told reporters after the dinner meeting. "They cannot be easy. They will be business-like. I think we won't waste our time tomorrow." When asked if Russia was ready to compromise, Ryabkov tersely responded, "The Americans should get ready to reach a compromise."
All the U.S. has been willing to do, it seems, is to remind Russia of so-called "serious consequences" should Russia invade Ukraine, something the U.S. and NATO fear is imminent, given the scope and scale of recent Russian military exercises in the region involving tens of thousands of troops. This threat was made by Biden to Putin on several occasions including a phone call initiated by Putin last week to help frame the upcoming talks.
Yet on the eve of the Ryabkov-Sherman meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken simply reiterated these threats declaring that Russia would face "massive consequences" if it invaded Ukraine.
"It's clear that we've offered him two paths forward," Blinken said, speaking of Putin. "One is through diplomacy and dialogue; the other is through deterrence and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression against Ukraine. And we're about to test the proposition of which path President Putin wants to take this week."
Lessons of History
It is as if both Biden and Blinken are deaf, dumb, and blind, when it comes to reading Russia.
Ryabkov has alluded to a fact already made clear by the Russians there will be no compromise when it comes to Russia's legitimate national security interests. And if the U.S. cannot understand how the accumulation of military power encompassed in a military alliance which views Russia as a singular, existential threat to its members' security is seen by Russia as threatening, then there is no comprehension of how the events of June 22, 1941 have shaped the present-day Russian psyche, why Russia will never again allow such a situation to occur and why the talks are doomed before they even begin.
As for the American threats, Russia has given its response, any effort to sanction Russia would result, as Putin told Biden last month, in a "complete rupture of relations" between Russia and those countries attempting sanctions.
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