The Week of Russo-American Negotiations: Context, Hiccups, and Aftermath
In the wake of Ukraine’s first successful combat use of the Turkish-made UAV Bayraktar TB2 in October 2021, the Russian military had spent the following month dramatically increasing its presence along Ukraine’s border, reaching estimates of just under 100,000 troops with the potential to reach 175,000 according to American officials. Such posturing, together with rhetorical signaling by Russian officials, had raised fears that the Kremlin was planning a military operation in Ukraine sometime during the 2021-22 winter season. By December 7, in an attempt to head off the invasion and discuss long-held security concerns by Moscow, the Biden administration held a 2-hour videoconference that resulted in pledges to revive diplomacy over Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Curiously, the administration took the step of publicly ruling out the unilateral use of force in Ukraine in the event of an invasion by Russia. Russia gave no such assurances at the time. Ten days later, Russia publicly released a pair of draft treaties aimed at the US and NATO, which if adopted would have limited the ability of either to perform military-technical functions in much of Eastern Europe and prevented NATO and American defense activity in much of the Former Soviet Union, including non-NATO security partners Georgia and Ukraine.
On this basis, the stage was set for a series of meetings in Geneva and Brussels from January 10-12, 2022, aimed at heading off an invasion of Ukraine and revisiting Europe’s security arrangements. At the Russo-American bilateral talks in Geneva on January 10, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her Russian Foreign Ministry counterpart Sergey Ryabkov to discuss a variety of issues, including the fate of Ukraine, NATO expansion, sanctions, and missile defense. Central to Ryabkov’s position was the demand for legal guarantees that no former Soviet state, especially Georgia and Ukraine, would join NATO. Sherman dismissed any discussion of NATO’s willingness to accept additional member states and went on to threaten additional sanctions on Russian institutions should it forcefully compel Ukraine’s foreign policy. While Sherman did attempt to initiate talks on repositioning missile placements in Europe for both sides, Ryabkov insisted no modifications to missile defense could be made without first meeting the security demands laid out in the draft treaties.
Two days later, the NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels and reached a somewhat more productive conclusion to their talks. While Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko was equally vociferous to Ryabkov in his demands for NATO to limit its military partnership with Ukraine and prevent its future accession to the alliance, NATO remained steadfast in its rejection of these terms. More encouragingly, Russia and the NATO member states shared in their readiness to hold future meetings on substantive issues such as missile deployments in Europe, arms control, and military exercises. While Russian diplomats were not in a position to readily commit publicly to future talks, they did not reject them.
Leading up to and during the meetings, both the US and Russia experienced complicating externalities that limited the manifestation of a more fruitful dialogue. On December 18, 2021, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allowed GOP Senator Ted Cruz to force a vote by January 14, 2022 on his bill sanctioning businesses involved in the Russo-German Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. Sanctions targeting parties involved in the pipeline had previously enjoyed strong bipartisan supermajorities since 2017. However, President Biden’s decision to appease European allies (particularly Germany) by waiving sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG in May 2021, together with Senator Cruz’s bill to sanction pipeline affiliates within 15 days, had forced Senate Democrats into the unenviable position of either breaking with their party leader or appearing weak on Russia ahead of midterm elections in November 2022. A passing vote on Senator Cruz’s bill would also have undermined the diplomatic tone the Biden administration had sought to maintain over the course of negotiations. As it was, on January 13, the bill was closely defeated mostly on party lines, but could be later used as campaign material in the fall.
For Russia’s part, the deployment of the Kremlin-led security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in Kazakhstan against anti-government mass protests on January 6, 2022 added further strain to the spirit of the talks. Ostensibly requested by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as a peacekeeping force to quell demonstrators alleged to be international terrorists, the presence of the CSTO in Kazakhstan heightened pressure on the Russian delegation by increasing skepticism of their foreign policy intentions among American policymakers and intellectuals. Between Tokayev’s outstanding order to use lethal ammunition on protestors without warning and Russia’s rich history of establishing long-term security presences in former Soviet states by way of peacekeeping missions, there were significant questions among Western actors regarding the scope and scale of a Russia-led operation in Kazakhstan. The intervention also incited speculation over whether Russia would be incentivized to or discouraged from escalating its military presence along the Ukrainian border. While the foreign ministries of the US and Russia traded several barbs on the matter leading up to the Geneva talks, both ultimately opted to treat Kazakhstan as a separate issue, and ultimately the CSTO itself had begun withdrawing from the country by January 11.
The talks between Russia and the West thus ended with little substantive progress and a return to military-technical escalation against Ukraine. On January 14, unidentified hackers brought down dozens of Ukrainian government websites for several hours, uploading ominous and intimidating messages in Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian. While investigations into the hackers’ identities are ongoing, the manner and timing of the attack call to mind previous Russian-linked cyber-offensives such as the Bronze Soldier Incident of 2007, the eve of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and the Ukrainian power grid hack of 2015. Russian military intelligence has pioneered the offensive potential of cyberwarfare over the past decade and has often sought to mask its influence in various operations through tacit relationships with non-state actors. Further heightening Western anxieties about a new invasion into Ukraine are U.S. intelligence reports alleging Russian plans to stage a false flag attack as a pretext to war. While Russia denies the accusations, such statements have done little to assuage Western anxieties about an imminent renewal of warfare in Ukraine. The actions taken during the next two months will be critical for the Russo-American relationship.
Prepared by Michael Robinson, January 20, 2022.
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