By Asad Mirza
Russia has called for a new security settlement in Europe and threatens war if the US and its NATO allies fail to comply with the agreements. Western analysts are divided over the interpretation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives. Some say he is using the impossible list of demands as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Others think he is playing a weak hand in trying to divide the West and rearrange Europe’s security architecture in favor of Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, which requested the US remove its nuclear umbrella from Europe and allow Russia to restore its Soviet-era sphere of influence over Eastern Europe, issued the new Russian demands, in a rather unusual way.
On December 17, 2021, the Russian Foreign Ministry unilaterally published two draft treaties: one targeting Russia and the US, and one between Russia and NATO.
The draft Russian Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees contained more than a dozen demands, including: no NATO membership of all states of the former USSR, including the Baltic states that have been members of the alliance since 2004 prohibits NATO from expanding further east. Furthermore, the US may not operate bombers or deploy warships, armed forces or armaments in areas outside its national airspace and territorial waters, including within NATO’s framework. Russia could be seen as a threat to its national security. It asks the US to remove all its nuclear weapons from Europe and to stop deploying ground-launched medium-range and shorter-range missiles outside its territory.
The concept focusing on NATO’s “Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and the Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” set additional requirements such as; NATO member states are prohibited from deploying military forces in a country that joined the alliance after May 27, 1997, when NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act of Mutual Relations. NATO is also prohibited from deploying land-based medium and short-range missiles in a location from which such missiles can reach Russia; NATO is prohibited from expanding further, including military cooperation with Ukraine and other states in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and in Central Asia.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that both texts are part of a whole and should not be taken as ‘a menu where you can choose one or the other’.
While Russia expects NATO and the US to meet its demands, Moscow has made only a vague commitment in return to “not create conditions or situations that threaten the national security of the other parties.” The draft treaty makes no demands on Moscow to redeploy Russian troops.
On December 23, 2021, in a four-hour press conference, Putin reiterated his position that “any further NATO movement eastward is unacceptable.” A few days later, the Kremlin described NATO expansion as “a matter of life and death” for Russia. On December 26, Russia warned Finland and Sweden against joining NATO.
The western response
Initially, there was no response from the US or NATO, as both said they have scheduled meetings with Russian leaders in the second week of January, and that it would give them a chance to negotiate before making their position clear.
The Geneva talks between Russia and the US were followed by other sessions in Brussels with NATO and Vienna with representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), aimed at averting a crisis. But at all three meetings, there was no sign of progress from either side.
As both sides dug in their positions as Ukraine’s future was at stake, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said “no progress” was being made on the central demand for NATO expansion.
Meanwhile, Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the OSCE, has said Washington and its allies support continued dialogue to ease tensions with Russia. He went on to say that we are dealing with a crisis in European security. The war drum sounds loud and the rhetoric has become rather shrill.
This came as Russia said talks with the West about the situation in Ukraine have hit a “dead end”.
The Ukrainian question
Recently, Moscow has been particularly alarmed by the prospect of Ukraine’s admission to NATO and has warned of serious measures to counter that scenario.
It seems that Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is due to both strategic and historical factors. The Russo-Ukrainian ties go back even before the rise of the Soviet Union – and even before the days of the Russian Empire that started in the 18th century, which was the birthplace of the first Russian state in the 9th century.
Putin also wants to counter the decline in his country’s global influence. Moscow’s influence in places like Ukraine is one way to maintain that influence. Ukraine is also an important part of Russia’s plans for a Eurasian customs union with some other former Soviet states.
Ukraine’s move to the Western Bloc in the name of having a democratic state has left the Russian establishment feeling betrayed, as Kiev’s national identity and history is far more tied to Russia than the Turkish states in Central Asia and the Baltic States in Eastern Europe, which were also part of the USSR.
Kiev’s emotional presence in the Russian heartland has not changed much. Putin has continued to refer to Ukraine as “Little Russia,” citing a former Russian general, Anton Denikin.
Russia’s influence has declined significantly over time in the Balkans, where Moscow was once the leading power. It has already lost Baltic states to the EU after the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result, Moscow believes it cannot cede Ukraine to the West.
Moreover, Russia may not like having too many pro-EU neighbors with NATO sympathies along its western border. Lithuania and Estonia, the two Baltic states bordering Russia, have already joined the union, much to the dismay of the Russian establishment. So it would do everything it could to maintain its influence over Ukraine. There is no longer any doubt that Vladimir Putin seeks nothing less than a transformation in European security, with a greatly diminished NATO presence along its borders.
(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi)
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