Russia and the United States are to hold direct talks early in the New Year on how to resolve the tense standoff over Ukraine that dominated the closing weeks of 2021.
Washington reports of the forthcoming talks raised the prospect of a diplomatic resolution of a crisis in which the US and its European allies have accused Moscow of preparing to invade the former Soviet republic.
In a further tentative sign of optimism, Russia announced it was withdrawing 10,000 of its troops from the Ukraine border after they completed military exercises.
The roots of the crisis date back to the 1990s and the eastern expansion of the Western alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that followed German reunification.
In what was seen in Russia as an aggressive expansion, NATO incorporated former Soviet republics and allies right up to the Russian border and then pledged in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned NATO leaders at that time that the Western alliance could not guarantee its security at the expense of other countries’ security.
Russia has now determined that what it sees as its encirclement has gone far enough and should not go further. It is a scenario in which each side has accused the other of reviving the Cold War.
Putin has accused the US and its European allies of escalating the tensions and warned that Russia would respond to any Western aggression.
“Why did they expand NATO and renounce the missile defense treaties?” Putin said in late December. “They are to blame for what is happening now, for the tensions building up in Europe.”
He demanded security guarantees from the Western alliance, including a commitment that Ukraine would never be granted NATO membership and that no Western weapons or troops would be deployed there.
Ukraine’s NATO membership would require the alliance to intervene militarily in the event of perceived aggression against it, a situation that could potentially lead to direct military confrontation between the Western powers and Russia.
Putin regards Ukraine as historically and culturally linked to Russia and sees its fate as a red line in relations with the West. Washington and its allies, however, view his demands as an unacceptable ultimatum.
Despite this bleak scenario at the turn of the year, the prospect of early talks may represent a ray of light. Confirming that a major round of talks with the US would take place immediately after Russia’s holiday season, which ends on Jan 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he wanted military officials involved.
Restating Moscow’s view of the Western alliance, he said, “NATO is now a purely geopolitical project to develop territory that became ownerless after the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
The Russian government has, meanwhile, underlined the gravity of the present standoff by warning Western diplomats and military attaches in Moscow of the dangers posed by an armed conflict between Russia and NATO. It is yet to confirm whether it will hold direct talks with the alliance as a whole.
The escalating crisis has coincided with the end-of-year holiday season in the West and with a news agenda dominated by other concerns such as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Putin may be correctly calculating that most people in the West are more concerned about issues such as rising energy prices than they are about taking a tough stance on Ukraine.
Moscow scarcely needs to remind NATO members in Europe that they are dependent on Russia for up to 40 percent of their gas imports. Any escalation of the current crisis would be certain to send energy costs above their already high levels.
Such mutual interests between the two power blocs are one more reason for them to step back from the brink and use the forthcoming talks to resolve their differences through coolheaded diplomacy.