US-Russia Diplomatic Feelers Over Ukraine: Based on Wrong Assumptions

The US and Russia have vowed to continue negotiations aimed at defusing the Ukraine crisis. But the current diplomatic negotiations between Washington and Moscow will achieve nothing, since they are based on wrong US assumptions and may encourage the worst Russian instincts.

For the US, the current negotiations are about reversing the Russian occupation of Crimea and averting the danger of an all-out Russian invasion through the rest of Ukraine. But for Moscow, the talks are about consolidating Russia’s dominant position in the region for years to come. Given such diametrically-opposed objectives, the talks will only be able to produce an outcome if one of the negotiating parties offers a fundamental concession. And, at least for the moment, the Russians seem highly unlikely to blink first.

Russia initiated the current round of negotiations after President Vladimir Putin took the unusual step of telephoning US President Barack Obama a week ago with what Moscow billed as a ‘new set of initiatives’. The offer was tempting enough to persuade Secretary of State Kerry to turn his plane mid-air and head to Paris for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov which took place earlier this week.

The talks saw no joint communique. Nor was there much agreement on whether they signified progress: while an ebullient Mr Lavrov claimed that the negotiations were ‘very, very constructive’, a visibly tired Mr Kerry merely noted that the two countries ‘agreed to continue our discussions soon’.

Still, the negotiating positions are clear enough. The US wants Russia to withdraw its estimated 40,000 battle-ready troops now massed on Ukraine’s frontiers which Mr Kerry claims ‘are creating a climate of fear and intimidation’. It also wants Russia to withdraw its soldiers from Crimea, cooperate in the ‘demobilization and disarmament of irregular forces and provocateurs’. But Russia, for its part, claims that the incorporation of Crimea into Russia’s national territory is non-negotiable, and denies accusations that the concentration of  troops at Ukraine’s borders is menacing.

What Russian negotiators want is US agreement to what Mr Sergei Lavrov termed as a ‘deep constitutional reform’ of Ukraine, from a centrally-run country to a federation of autonomous regions in which ethnic Russians will allegedly feel more secure; ‘we don’t see any other way for the steady development of the Ukrainian state apart form a federation’, added Mr Lavrov.

The Russian foreign minister must know that his demands are unacceptable to the US. No American government can formally accept the military seizure of Crimea, and none can be seen to be negotiating the contents of Ukraine’s future constitution above the heads of the Ukrainians themselves: ‘no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine’, as Mr John Kerry categorically put it yesterday.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that the US is prepared to discuss such matters is, in itself, a bonus for the Russians. For, as long as the talks continue, there will be little incentive in the West to consider imposing further sanctions on Russia.

And, although Mr Kerry claims that the ‘US is consulting with Ukraine at every step of this process’, the Americans have already accepted that the status of ethnic minorities in Ukraine is a legitimate subject of discussions between themselves and the Russians.

The US also has a long history of claiming not to draft other people’s constitutions, while doing precisely that, as the people of Iraq remember. So, from the Russian perspective, there is everything to be gained by continuing diplomatic feelers, and the massing of Russian troops is intended to concentrate American minds.

The Russian Advantage over the United States

Secretary of State Kerry believes that he has given nothing away by engaging in a dialogue with Russia. Yet that’s where US diplomacy may actually be dead-wrong. For it is based on a wrong assumption: that everything must be done to avert a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. The concentration of battle-ready Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders is certainly menacing.

Nevertheless, there are a number of very concrete reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to send his troops into eastern Ukraine. The first is that, although the region has many ethnic Russians, it also has many Ukrainians who are likely to resist a Russian occupation. So, unlike the takeover of Crimea which was swift and bloodless, an occupation of eastern Ukraine is almost certain to embroil Russian troops in serious fighting. Eastern Ukraine is also a much larger territory, requiring a substantial force to pin down. And unlike Crimea, there is no obvious geographic limit to this territory: the Russians therefore risk becoming involved in a major military adventure with no immediate ‘exit strategy’.

But the most important reason why Mr Putin will not send his troops into Ukraine now is that he has other ways of achieving his objectives. He knows that Crimea is his to keep, and that no Western government is likely to challenge this newly-acquired Russian province. And he knows that he can afford to keep the military squeeze on, in the hope that it will be Mr Kerry who will blink first. By obliging him with the current negotiations, the US Secretary of State may have walked straight into the trap Moscow’s set up for him. 

But, besides ‘averting’ an ‘invasion’ which was never unlikely to take place, it is difficult to see what US diplomats can talk about.  For Russia’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine are very sweeping: they include a proposal that Ukraine’s regions will have a say not only over local affairs, but also ‘Ukraine’s foreign policy direction’, a more polite Russian way of saying that the ethnic Russians inside Ukraine will be able to block the country’s pro-Western orientation.

Diplomatic niceties aside, the ultimate choice facing Mr Kerry is stark enough: he can either reject the Russian offer and risk a dangerous showdown with Russia, or accept it, and consign Ukraine to the status of an impotent buffer zone between Russia and the West for years to come. The fact that, at least for the moment, Mr Kerry refuses to rule out either option is in itself an indication of American hesitation which the Russians are guaranteed to exploit.

That’s why Mr Sergei Lavrov left the latest Paris negotiations beaming. The Russians simply do not buy the Western arguments that Moscow is isolated, or that it cannot get its objectives in Ukraine.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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