Before last year’s end, the US and Russian presidents had had their second telephone call together, which took place on 30 December.
The call between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin dealt with a range of questions and in particular with the face-off between the West, led by the US, and a resurgent Russia under Putin concerning the tense situation along the Russian-Ukrainian border.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops deployed on the border with Ukraine, the US administration with its NATO and Western allies has been afraid of Russia’s next move in the light of this unprecedented deployment of forces.
They have been talking of possible Russian “aggression” against Ukraine. The worst-case scenario for the US and its Western allies would be Russia going into Ukraine in a move similar to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Prior to the conversation between the two men, Biden talked to “all European leaders,” according to the spokeswoman of the White House National Security Council, and officials of his administration coordinated with their counterparts in NATO, especially countries on the eastern flank of Europe and the “B 9” countries of Eastern and Central Europe and the Baltic.
The US and Russia agreed in the call between the two presidents to hold strategic stability talks in Geneva on 9-10 January. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is to lead the US delegation and her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov the Russian delegation.
These talks will be followed by a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on 11 January and on the following day by a meeting of the permanent council of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia is a member.
The three meetings were scheduled amidst the mutual warnings exchanged between the West and Russia.
Biden warned Putin in their second call that the US and its allies were prepared to respond “decisively” if Russian troops moved into Ukraine. Similarly, Putin affirmed in December that his country was ready to resort to “appropriate military-technical measures” and to “react harshly to hostile steps” if the West and Ukraine chose to ignore Moscow’s red lines.
These include not deploying NATO forces in countries bordering Russia, no military exercises near these borders and not establishing US bases in the former Soviet republics, the latter referring mainly to Ukraine, of course, but also to countries in Central Asia.
In preparation for the three meetings mentioned above, NATO foreign ministers held a virtual conference on 8 January.
In a defiant declaration, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance would not “stop its expansion across Europe” and that it believed that it needs to engage in “dialogue with Russia... on arms control.” This has to be “balanced, reciprocal and verifiable… in Europe,” he said.
He also warned of a “new armed conflict in Europe because of the Russian military buildup” and what he called “new demands” made by Russia, referring implicitly to Moscow’s red lines.
Speaking last Friday after the NATO meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US decision to go into the strategic stability talks would “reconfirm our readiness to increase transparency, institute new risk-reduction measures and renew efforts to address nuclear and conventional threats to European security.”
He said that the basic objective was to “have a relationship with Russia that is predictable and stable so that we can cooperate when it is in our mutual interest and address our differences with an open and frank dialogue.”
It is to be hoped that the three scheduled meetings with Russian officials in Geneva and Brussels this week will contribute to de-escalation and pave the way to mutual understanding between the West and Russia on respecting each other’s red lines.
Admitting Ukraine to NATO would be the equivalent of deploying Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil in the early 1960s. Back then, the two superpowers succeeded in backing off from the brink of nuclear war.
The Cuban Missile Crisis could thus be a useful copy book from which the West and Russia could learn on how to combine diplomacy and deterrence to avoid armed conflicts, both conventional and nuclear.
Talk about European security would be more convincing and more credible if Russian strategic interests were respected and taken into consideration. In other words, European security versus Russian insecurity is a sure recipe for serious consequences for international peace and security.
Last but not least, the US administration went to great lengths to assure its European allies that Washington would not agree to measures in the US-Russian strategic talks that could be detrimental to their security after press reports had said that the US could come to an agreement with Russia on troop reductions on the eastern flank of NATO.
A senior state department official assured the Europeans on 8 January that “I want to be crystal clear that [these press reports are] not accurate. We are tightly latched up with our NATO allies as we are addressing the crisis together. And I am just going to reiterate that the principle here is ‘nothing about you without you.’ And that’s 150 per cent true when we are talking about force structure in Europe.”
The road ahead for both the US-Russian stability talks and the future of Europe’s security architecture, including that of Russia, calls for statesmanship on the part of the Western and the Russian leaders alike.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.