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bne IntelliNews – MOSCOW BLOG: NATO Confrontation – Geneva III

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have just sat down for the third meeting in Geneva for what is likely the final round of meetings in the first phase of the EU’s enlargement crisis NATO to see if they can find common ground.

The two men started with “we don’t have much hope for progress”, but at least they are talking to each other. This round which opened with a Encounter in Geneva on January 10 between US Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov will end next week when Blinken announces that he will deliver the official letter with the written response to the list of eight demands points in December.

Everyone agrees that the two sides could reach some sort of agreement on all the items on the list, except for the item “no NATO enlargement”. And both parties have signaled that they will not budge on this point.

So it seems pretty clear that this crisis is going to get worse because Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly thought this through in great detail and I’m sure he has plenty of nasty surprises in store because he won’t back down and is determined to force a Solution.

Russia has already started moving troops to Belarus ahead of unplanned military drills there in February, and the Kremlin has just sent naval craft from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea for further drills; these will arrive within the next 10 days.

On the other hand, Blinken said that in Kiev on Tuesday, the United States would give Ukraine an additional $200 million for weapons, the United Kingdom flew cargo planes with more anti-missile missiles. tanks in Kiev this week and yesterday Washington gave the Baltics and the Czechs permission to sell Kiev. more guns too.

We are now in a classic escalation strategy and Lavrov was already complaining that the West was “loading Ukraine with weapons” before the news of the deliveries this week.

The rhetoric has also increased. Russia has repeatedly said that it has no intention of invading Ukraine, but continues to make threatening military moves. The Belarusian exercises clearly threaten an invasion of Ukraine from its northern border, allowing it to take Kiev as it comes behind the Dnieper, the main and difficult obstacle in the way of any force invading the eastern border of the Ukraine.

Blinken upped the ante in Kiev, saying Russia could invade “at any time”. US President Joe Biden went further later the same day saying, “I think Putin is moving in.” Blinken went even further the next day in Berlin, listing aggressive Russian military actions in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova and pointing out that Putin had told Bush in 2003 that “Ukraine is not a real country”. .

Positioning and domestic policy

The problem with all of these comments is that it seems to be more of a positioning in the ongoing talks than actual preparations for war. Sources in Kiev and Moscow report complete calm. There is no propaganda build-up in Russia that would be needed to sell an invasion to the people, and the mood in Kiev is equally calm: no troop movements, no calls for reservists, no media blitz. to prepare the people. In fact, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was on television yesterday to reassure Ukrainians that there is no war coming. Like bne IntelliNews reported, warnings of an invasion were almost all generated by US intelligence briefing the US press, but were not confirmed by reports from the field.

This does not mean that there is no danger. Analysts say Putin is using a constraint strategy where one state demands something of another, but must back it up with a credible threat of violence for the strategy to work.

One aspect of this story that I think has received little attention is the role that US domestic politics plays in the Biden administration’s game plan. The problem is that after two decades the demonization of Putin has become a very useful tool in US and European domestic politics, but it also means that it is very difficult to sell any deal with Putin at home.

It was British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who first used this tool, demonizing Putin for looking strong at a time when he had his own political problems. Since then, it has become a common practice to the point that any accommodation is strongly criticized. Germany’s stance on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a classic example of this and Merkel has been condemned as a collaborator for advancing construction of the pipeline.

The hypothesis of Brown (and all those who followed him) was: you can demonize Putin without any political cost, because Europe has little business outside of raw material imports, it therefore it is not necessary to maintain good relations with Russia and you can say what you want. Biden went so far as to call Putin “a killer,” which was a diplomatic faux pas, even though he sincerely believes it.

But that’s no longer true. Now the West needs to make a deal with Putin, otherwise it will keep turning the screw, which will make it progressively more difficult to make a deal later. Therefore, the invasion hype gives Washington some leeway.

Like bne IntelliNews reported profusely, a real invasion and annexation of Ukraine is highly unlikely, as it would be extremely difficult to do and even harder to hold. This means that when the invasion doesn’t happen, now specifically predicted for February by the US press, the White House can take credit for preventing it by being tough – an argument it can use to defend any agreement reached with the Kremlin in the meantime. . The “planned invasion” of Ukraine will conveniently come in the middle of the second round of diplomacy when a deal is struck or we go to war with Russia – hoping for a new Cold War if that happens.

Keeping EU Cats

The White House faces a second problem: Europe’s reluctance to commit to such a hard line. The problem can be boiled down to the fact that NATO views Russia as an “enemy” because it was created specifically to fight the USSR and Russia took over that mantle in 1991 – a point Lavrov made in his press conferences after the Blinken Rencontre. The United States sees Russia as a “rival” and not particularly powerful, but strong enough to be a royal pain in the neck. But Europe sees Russia as a “business opportunity” as well as a very useful source of inputs.

It was telling that between his meeting with Zelenskiy in Kyiv and his meeting with Lavrov in Geneva today, Blinken stopped in Berlin to meet with representatives from Germany, France and the United Kingdom to coordinate their response and to present a united front.

However, that effort is not going well, especially after a government leak to Handelsblatt reported that Berlin had taken Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT messaging service off the table. In general, Germany has advocated extremely light sanctions that largely target individuals as it tries to find a middle way between tackling Russia’s worst aggression and maintaining trade ties with its big neighbor. Oriental.

Biden also blurted out in his presser that the White House has also crafted a graduated response to any Russian action, rhetorically asking what the response would be to a ‘minor incursion’ and suggesting the US would pull its punches in that case. . The same idea of ​​graduated responses is enshrined in the “sanctions from hell” bill: one of the clauses of the list of 13 banks liable to be sanctioned in the event of a military attack stipulates that “at least three banks must be sanctioned” if these sanctions are applied.

The comment prompted an angry tweet from Zelenskiy, who said: “We want to remind the big powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor victims and little grief over the loss of loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.

Disunity among NATO members is to Russia’s advantage and makes the chances of an agreement more likely and the chances of war less. However, things remain up in the air.

As I was writing this, the Blinken-Lavrov meeting ended and Lavrov gave a short press conference. The meeting was inconclusive, with Lavrov saying nothing was decided and the Kremlin is still waiting for the US letter before deciding what to do next; however, he called the talks “fruitful” and “meaningful”, so there is still hope for a deal.

This article first appeared as a blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S CHOICES, a daily e-mail digest of the top stories from the past 24 hours, delivered free to your inbox. Click on here to view past issues and to subscribe.