Russian officials on Thursday signalled that they might abandon diplomatic efforts to resolve the security crisis surrounding Ukraine, bringing a whirlwind week of European diplomacy to an ominous end and deflating hopes that negotiators could forge a path toward easing tensions in Eastern Europe.
One senior Russian diplomat said that talks with the West were approaching a “dead end,” while another said the Kremlin would wait until it received written responses to its demands from Washington and from NATO next week before deciding how to proceed.
It was clear that Russia’s next move would be up to President Vladimir Putin, who, his spokesperson said Thursday, was being briefed regularly this week on negotiations with the West.
“The United States and its allies are actually saying no to key elements of these texts,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said, referring to the draft agreements with NATO and Washington that Russia published last month. “This is what we call a dead end or a different approach.”
In Washington, Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters that after a week of diplomacy, the United States was ready to talk further, especially about missile deployments and military exercises in Europe, but was also preparing to respond “to a further Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
“We have been very clear with Russia on the costs and consequences of further military action or destabilization,” Sullivan said. “So we’re ready either way.”
Sullivan said the Russian responses to the meetings in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna had been contradictory, noting that some officials have been “hopeful” and others sounded “deeply pessimistic.” But he added, “I’m not going to put myself in the head of the Russians” and noted that American intelligence agencies had still not determined that the Russians had definitively decided on a military course of action.
The U.S. representative to Thursday’s meeting, Michael Carpenter, also depicted the two sides as engaged in a standoff with no clear resolution.
“We must never stand for the flouting or erosion of our bedrock principles,” Carpenter said. “That means no tolerance for overt or tacit spheres of influence, no restrictions on the sovereign right of nations to choose their own alliances, no privileging one state’s security requirements over those of another.”
Russia is demanding that NATO drastically scale back its presence near Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe, including stopping all military cooperation with Ukraine and providing legally binding guarantees that the country will never join the alliance. Ryabkov said dialogue with the United States was continuing but also warned that Putin was receiving options from the military about what to do “in the case of a deterioration of the situation.”
Those options, analysts and Western officials believe, are likely to involve new Russian military action against Ukraine. Joining this week’s discussions for the first time Thursday, Ukraine said it had identified 106,000 Russian troops and 1,500 tanks near its border and accused Moscow of pointing a “gun at our common European security.”
Thursday’s gathering, the last of three negotiating sessions this week between Russia and the West, took place in Vienna at a meeting of the 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group that includes Russia and Ukraine as well as the United States.
“It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years,” Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau of Poland, which took over the rotating chairmanship of the organization this year, said in opening the session.
The West insists all countries must have the freedom to choose their alliances, while the Kremlin says that NATO cannot expand eastward and that Western military cooperation with post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine presents an existential threat to Russia’s security.
While Russian officials said this week that they were impressed with the seriousness with which the Biden administration — which the Kremlin sees as its main counterpart — engaged in the talks, there was no sign Thursday that the impasse had been broken.
And while U.S. officials say they are prepared to discuss some of Russia’s concerns — such as negotiating reciprocal limits on where and how military exercises are conducted, or perhaps reviving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States pulled out of two years ago — they reject any discussion of Russia’s central demand to roll back NATO expansion.
And it is that larger goal that seems to be driving Russia in the negotiations, as it seeks to keep Ukraine out of NATO and NATO forces from placing troops or weapons in former Soviet states that have since joined the Western alliance. The United States has insisted it will not abandon core principles, including the right of nations to pick their allies, which is at the heart of NATO’s “open door” policy.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also adopted a pessimistic tone.
“The hard reality right now is that we were promised a written reaction,” Lavrov said in an interview aired Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency. “We will wait for it. And then we will determine our next steps.”
Carpenter, asked about Lavrov’s comments, said he did not know whether such a written response was coming.
Ukraine, rejecting Russia’s denials that it had no plans to invade, said Russia’s massing of troops near the Ukrainian border needed to be reversed.
“The Russian leadership proves once again Moscow’s voluntarism to point the gun at our common European security at any moment they want,” said Ukraine’s representative, Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk.
Thursday’s talks were at a lower diplomatic level than the negotiations in Brussels and Geneva earlier this week, with no one above the ambassador rank in attendance from the key countries involved. Their host, the OSCE, is expected to serve as a key venue for more negotiations if the Kremlin decides to pursue diplomacy.
“We are not indifferent to security objections voiced by participating states,” Rau said. “I believe that the OSCE is the right platform to discuss every aspect of comprehensive security.”
It was the latest sign that Western countries are scrambling to engage with Russia, which has warned of a “military-technical” response if concerns over its security — such as overt Western military cooperation with Ukraine — are not addressed.
While Russia denies it has plans to invade Ukraine, researchers have identified some new signs of Russian troops moving toward the Ukrainian border in recent days.
Russia’s representative at the talks Thursday in Vienna, Alexander Lukashevich, underscored that Moscow was not ruling out the possibility of further negotiations. Military analysts have noted that, were Russia to invade Ukraine, the wintertime frozen ground would be advantageous to its heavy armor.
“If we do not hear a constructive response on our proposals in a reasonable time frame,” Lukashevich said in remarks released by his office, “we will be forced to draw the corresponding conclusions and take all necessary measures to assure the strategic balance and remove unacceptable threats to our national security.”