Can U.S.-Russia Diplomacy Ease Ukraine Tensions?

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Can U.S.-Russia Diplomacy Ease Ukraine Tensions?

Russia has demanded security guarantees that U.S. and NATO officials cannot accept, but there could still be room for building a sustainable dialogue on European security.

The latest U.S.-Russia talks show few signs of progress on easing tensions over Ukraine. What will it take to de-escalate the situation?

For Russia, what’s at stake is much more than Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation. The military buildup along Ukraine’s borders was intended, at least in part, to compel the United States to seriously address Russia’s security concerns about North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion eastward since the end of the Cold War.

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The Kremlin is demanding that Washington agree to legally binding guarantees of Russian security in Europe. Specifically, it seeks a U.S. commitment to reverse NATO’s expansion and recreate the situation as it was in 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security was signed and before any former Soviet satellite had joined the defense alliance. NATO pledged to Moscow that it would not deploy nuclear weapons or permanently station “substantial combat forces” in new member states. Moscow now wants the United States to forswear military bases and the deployment of missiles capable of striking Russian territory in any former Soviet state, first of all Ukraine. 

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The Kremlin almost certainly understands that the United States—and its NATO allies—will never accede to these demands. Whether it will settle for less and de-escalate the tensions over Ukraine is an open question. Washington hopes that a set of mutual commitments to transparency in military activities and bans on the deployment of certain weapons systems along the NATO-Russia frontier will persuade Moscow to defuse the current crisis. So far, however, the talks have not borne out those hopes.

What is prompting this surge of Russian concern about security threats from Ukraine? 

Several developments appear to have led to the decision to force the Ukraine question onto the U.S.-Russia agenda. First, Moscow has lost hope that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will be pragmatic in rebuilding relations with Russia. Over the past year, Zelensky has cracked down on Russia-supported political forces inside Ukraine, pressed NATO to accelerate movement on membership, and rallied international opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In addition, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned by burgeoning security ties between Ukraine and the United States and other NATO countries, more ambitious U.S.-led military exercises in the Black Sea, and more aggressive strategic reconnaissance along Russia’s borders in that region. 

Other likely elements in Moscow’s calculation are the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the Joe Biden administration’s focus on the strategic challenge posed by China, which has led Moscow to believe that now is an opportune moment to extract concessions from Washington.

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U.S. and NATO officials have warned of strong economic and political penalties if Russia mounts a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Can such moves be effective?

Since these countries levied sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine in 2014, a debate has swirled around their efficacy. They have produced only a moderate decline in Russia’s economic output. Also, they have had little noticeable impact on Russia’s behavior, as it has consolidated its control of Crimea, continued to support separatists in the Donbas region, and otherwise sought to destabilize Ukrainian domestic affairs. For that reason, critics have argued that sanctions should be much stiffer.

Wendy Sherman stands next to Sergei Ryabkov in front of U.S. and Russian flags.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend talks on tensions over Ukraine in Geneva. Denis Balibouse/AFP/Getty Images

Now, U.S. and NATO officials are threatening “devastating” sanctions against Russia’s financial, technological, and military sectors should it launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  Whether such threats will substantially change Moscow’s calculations is far from certain. Russia has demonstrated in the past that it is prepared to suffer great pain to defend its vital interests, which it believes are at stake in Ukraine. It also has reason to doubt the extent of Western unity on sanctions. Germany, for example, remains opposed to sanctioning the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline (which runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany), despite mounting calls in Washington to do so.

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Great deterrents could be the augmentation of NATO forces along the Russia-NATO border in the Baltics and the Black Sea region, the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine to raise the cost of a Russian invasion, and active preparations to support an insurgency against Russian occupiers. In addition, engagement in a serious, sustained diplomatic effort to address Moscow’s concerns about European security could persuade it to forgo the risks of war.

Is the Russia-led intervention in Kazakhstan a sign of a broader authoritarian crackdown in the former Soviet space?

Moscow has sought in the past few years to use local unrest to enhance its influence throughout the former Soviet space. Given the character of most post-Soviet regimes, that has entailed support for authoritarian leaders. But that is not the same as encouraging an authoritarian crackdown; the impact of Russian intervention has varied from state to state. In Belarus, for example, Moscow helped the local dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko, beat back—with apparent success—nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of a rigged presidential election. 

In Kazakhstan, however, the situation is less clear-cut. Protests this month against a sharp increase in government-controlled prices for auto fuel morphed into a broader movement against a corrupt regime. But disaffected, authoritarian-inclined elite factions appear to have hijacked the unrest to launch an effort to displace the ruling faction. Moscow’s intervention ensured the success of the current rulers. The crackdown now underway is not designed so much to quell popular rebellion as to crush elite opposition.   

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