Ukraine Crisis: Can US-Russia talks break the impasse?

Although the meetings might be regarded as symbolic, the continuity of negotiations is essential for a peaceful resolution.

”There you go…Hello, good to see you again,” US President Joe Biden said to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin during their recent virtual meeting on Tuesday.

A nearly two hours long meeting began with this placid greeting before the US fired a warning shot saying Russia will face rigid economic and other sanctions if an escalating military crisis along Ukraine’s borders didn’t cool off.

“There was a lot of give and take, there was no finger wagging, but the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands,” Jake Sullivan, the US president’s national security adviser told reporters.

According to Prof. Dr Giray Sadik, Director of European Studies Research Center, the US-Russia negotiations are crucial since they implicate not just Ukraine but European and broader security, considering hard topics such as nuclear issues which are dependent on actors outside of the EU.

”Since the regional states are clearly unable to settle those disputes on their own, we are witnessing the intervention of great powers, in fact, the superpowers within the Cold War analogy which the recent Putin-Biden meeting demonstrate.”

”Directly speaking within the conflict zone, the Crimea and Donbas region with Donetsk and Luhansk as parts of that region are still under occupation of Russian supported forces,” Sadik added, citing that the recent Russian military buildup into this region makes Russia an even more immediate concern for both regional actors and the US.

The Russian side rebuffed the possible US and EU sanctions as Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov stated while giving a brief to the reporters after the meeting, saying President Putin’s response shaped around how sanctions are not a new thing for Russia as they have been there for some time but did not have a positive impact on both sides.

“It’s unclear why these sanctions should be slapped,” Ushakov said.

“Our president told [Biden] that you worry about something that we don’t understand, and we worry about what is clear for us.”

The meeting came during a critical period of the tightest relations between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War after the US intelligence report on the Kremlin’s deployment of over 150,000 troops towards the borders of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

For the US, Russia supposedly started preparing a multi-pronged offensive to Ukraine territory due to its concern over the crossing of its red line, which includes any NATO expansion in and around Ukraine and Ukraine’s inclusion in the Western bloc.

This claim fuelled concerns of a potential invasion and possible reiterated war on the European region since Ukraine stands as some sort of buffer zone between Russia and NATO allies.

A day after the meeting, Biden stated that sending US troops to Ukraine is not on the table, for now, but repeated that consequences would be harsh and economy-related.

One of the measures will likely include shutting down the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, a new export pipeline that runs from Russia to Europe across the Baltic Sea, which planned to double Moscow’s gas exports to Germany.

Meeting amid boosting Russian troops

The Putin-Biden talks were meant to examine the possibility of pragmatic compromises aimed at de-escalating the situation in the heart of Europe.

For Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, Ukraine is at the centre of Russia and America’s ongoing New Cold War. In this regard, for Russia, the country’s non-aligned military status is now being challenged by NATO’s de-facto expansion under the guise of delivering support to Kiev.

”From Moscow’s standpoint, this is a red line and it’ll defend its national security interests as it understands them to be,” Korybko stated, saying that this includes responding to any large-scale Kiev-led operations in Donbas which are perceived as endangering its territorial integrity.

In fact, Russia has the right to deploy its military forces wherever, however, and whenever it wants within its own territory like any other country.

”It cannot ‘withdraw’ its troops since they’re only in Russia and thus have nowhere to ‘withdraw’ to.”

The Kremlin side has rejected any intention to attack the country and stated that the deployed troops on its southern border are defensive. This however did not prevent the neighbouring NATO allies particularly the Baltic states and Poland to become alarmed.

Escalation context

”There will be an increasing push from those NATO members towards stronger NATO engagement in the region for the sake of Ukraine and their neighbourhood,” Sadik said, indicating that includes calls from non-NATO member Ukraine as well.

Although the White House readout shows Biden’s support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and his call for diplomacy, the likelihood of de-escalation is the most major stake following the recent talks.

For Mehmet Cagatay Guler, a researcher at SETA think tank based in Ankara, although a previous case of tense relations that had significantly de-escalated during Geneva peace talks on Syria is an important criterion, the current context is different in terms of mutual expectations, rhetoric, military activities, red lines and so forth.

”The level of escalation and the military activity on the border show us that Russia will not easily take a step back unless it gets what it is after,” he said, adding that considering the tactical battalion groups, the amount of the military equipment, and the location of the troops, the use of force is and persists to be on the table.

But there are more problematic aspects than just the Ukraine-Russia context that contribute to maintaining the current tense situation.

”We need to think about it comprehensively including the refugee issue on the Polish-Belarus border deadlock and issues in the Black Sea,” Sadik said, emphasising the ongoing odd relations between Russia, Belarus and the EU due to refugee standoff and Russia’s purpose in preventing any threat from NATO in the Black Sea, either to the Russian heartland or its strategic front in Crimea.
What to expect?

Dr Alexander Titov, lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, indicates that although the degree of Russia’s real intentions is still uncertain, it always seemed unlikely it would start a major invasion without a substantial pretext.

”The more likely strategy was to draw the attention of the US to the simmering Ukraine’s crisis and bring it back to the top of the international agenda. As the Biden-Putin summit showed, Moscow has succeeded in that,” he said. But he still cited the underlying problems of the Donbas region, and more broadly Ukraine’s drift towards NATO, as persuasive issues in the current tension.

”Even if the recent round of tensions subsides while a new round of negotiations is underway, we can expect the tensions to flare up in the future if the two underlying problems are unresolved,’’ he said.

Moreover, according to Guler, neither the EU countries, nor NATO and the US, have had a certain, consistent, and coherent Ukraine strategy even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

They all adopted very uneven and saving the day type policies which may even have provided Moscow with a window of opportunity to look for more.

”These actors still do not possess an eligible strategy, other than threatening Russia with economic sanctions whose effectiveness is very debatable,” he said.

Nevertheless, the existence and continuation of diplomatic negotiations may be a substantial indicator of mutual understanding on a peaceful resolution, despite their differences.

At this point, the Biden-Putin video call meeting and upcoming negotiations are of particular importance as they mean keeping the diplomatic channel open.

”Even if the outcomes are just symbolic, it still indicates the potential to yield constructive results.”

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