U.S. and Russia: Progress in talks or preparations for war?
Nikola Mikovic
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and U.S. President Joe Biden meet at the Villa la Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. /AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and U.S. President Joe Biden meet at the Villa la Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. /AP

Editor's note: Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist based in Serbia. He covers mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian foreign policies, and writes for multiple web magazines. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

If war is a continuation of politics by other means, Russia and Western-backed Ukraine are unlikely to engage in a large-scale military confrontation until all diplomatic means are exhausted. In other words, until mid-January, when Russian and American officials are expected to complete their scheduled meetings, situation in Eastern Europe will remain relatively calm.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Ukraine on December 7, which is when they agreed to continue their dialogue. Indeed, three weeks later, on December 30 the two leaders held another virtual meeting and discussed not only the situation in the Eastern European nation, but also the forthcoming security talks between the two countries. According to reports, the two leaders saw areas for progress in upcoming diplomatic talks, but also areas where agreements may be impossible.

Russian and American officials are due to meet in Geneva, Switzerland on January 10, followed by the talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on January 12 and a meeting on January 13 with Russia, the United States and other members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Thus, Putin and Biden have paved the way for future talks on "strategic stability."

It is worth noting that their virtual meeting, initiated by the Russian leader, convened at 3:35 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, which is 11:35 p.m. Moscow time. This little detail indicates that the Russian president had to stay awake until 12:25 a.m., which is when the meeting ended.

Prior to their talks, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that "negotiations are conducted with one single goal – to reach a compromise, taking into account each side's red lines." It is worth remembering, however, that Biden stressed on December 4 that he does not accept anyone's red lines, and during the meeting he reportedly told Putin that the West would impose large-scale sanctions if Russian escalation along the Ukrainian border continued.

Moreover, prior to the phone call between the U.S. and Russian leaders, the American officials announced that Biden would demand that Russia roll back about 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border. If the Kremlin obeys this American demand, such a move will be interpreted as a sign of Russian weakness.

Russian officials repeated on several occasions that troop movements are purely defensive given NATO's increased military activity near Russia's borders, and stressed that the Russian Federation has the right to move forces within its own territory in its national security interests. However, the very fact that Moscow has to justify the actions it conducts on its sovereign territory to the West is a clear sign that the United States still has a significant leverage over Russia.

Ukrainian border guards watch as a special vehicle digs a trench on the Ukraine-Russia border close to Sumy, Ukraine, December 21, 2021./CFP

Ukrainian border guards watch as a special vehicle digs a trench on the Ukraine-Russia border close to Sumy, Ukraine, December 21, 2021./CFP

Moscow has already pulled back 10,000 troops from near the Ukrainian border, which signals that the Kremlin is ready to make concessions to Washington. As a matter of fact, many points of the "ultimatum" Russia issued to the U.S. on December 17 are nothing but a list of concessions Moscow is willing to make if Washington promises that there will be no NATO expansion eastward.

Days before the Putin-Biden summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the West cannot be taken at its word. Still, the Kremlin insists on "legally binding guarantees" from its Western partners. Russia seeks written confirmation that NATO would not expand closer to Russia's borders, and that Ukraine's long-held membership aspirations would not be granted. But even if the U.S. and NATO agree to sign such a document, there is absolutely no guarantee that the West will implement a potential agreement. Russia, on the other hand, does not seem to have a mechanism to force the Western powers to implement the deal. It remains unclear, therefore, why Moscow insists on a legally binding document, especially given its previous failed deals with the West.

There do not seem to be any good options for Russia. Time is definitely not on its side. Even if Ukraine never joins NATO, Kiev is expected to continue purchasing arms from NATO countries. Although Biden reportedly told Putin that the U.S. did not intend to deploy offensive weapons in Ukraine, the Eastern European nation already has a significant number of Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, as well as the U.S.-produced Javelin anti-tank missiles.

In the mid to long term, Ukraine will be ready to restore its sovereignty over the Donbass region that is currently controlled by pro-Russian forces. If Russia intervenes, the West will undoubtedly impose severe sanctions on Moscow, a move that will have a negative impact on the Russian economy. If the Kremlin stands aside, it will not take too much time for Kiev to resolve the Donbass conflict by force. Soon after that, Ukraine and the West will open the issue of Crimea. Thus, the Kremlin's space for political maneuvers is not nearly as big as it seems.

Sooner or later Moscow may have to choose between a tough stance regarding the West, even if that means severe anti-Russian sanctions and a war against Western-backed Ukraine, and a humiliation in the international arena. For some political circles within the Kremlin, preserving the status quo as long as possible would be the ideal solution. But that does not seem to be possible. 2022 represents what Russian officials describe as "the moment of truth" for relations between Russia and the United States.

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