On Sunday, Russian and US diplomats will meet around the negotiating table in Geneva in an effort to diffuse tensions over Moscow’s troop buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border.
The two days of diplomatic talks, followed by several Nato meetings in Brussels, will be crucial in trying to resolve the fraught political situation that has been simmering since the 2014 Ukraine crisis.
But the prospect of finding a solution to the current crisis faces no shortage of complications. The US and its allies have warned Russia of the high costs of any further attack on its neighbour. Russia, for its part, has accused Ukraine of provocation, and has sought guarantees against Nato’s expansion eastwards.
With differences between Russia and Nato countries over Ukraine running deep, what hopes are there for progress in this dangerous diplomatic standoff?
A war of nerves
The tensions over Ukraine come amid a new low in the rocky relations between Russia and Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
For Vladimir Putin, current military pressure and the threat of invasion presents an opportunity to revisit a long list of security issues that have been an unsettled source of preoccupation for Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – and since 1997 when the first eastern countries were invited to join the Nato alliance.
At the top of its list of grievances is its opposition to Nato’s activity in the east, including claims that the alliance has been supplying Ukraine with weapons.
In December, Russia’s foreign ministry openly published its demands in the form of two draft treaties, one with Nato and one with the United States. These include a ban on ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia entering Nato, which it has said would mark the crossing of a red line.
Russia has also requested that Nato promises not to deploy certain weapons systems to states near Russia, and to limit military drills and manoeuvers near its borders, in effect reverting the alliance to where it was before its expansion eastwards in 1997.
“The general objective is to put a stop to the future enlargement of Nato and the demand that the United States will underwrite the commitment to that effect,” said Jussi Hanhimaki, professor of international history and politics at the Geneva Graduate Institute.
“It's not new but it's more openly stated by the Russian leadership at the moment than it has been in the past,” he told Geneva Solutions.
Many of these demands are likely to be non-starters for Nato countries. A senior White House official, cited by Axios, told reporters last month that “there are some things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable.” The membership of Ukraine, even if not immediately on the agenda, cannot be vetoed by any one country like Russia.
However, by presenting a list of demands, it can hope for partial agreements on certain aspects that can be sold as victories back home, said Hanhimaki, who specialises in American foreign policy and the history of the Cold War.
“What you are going to see is a continuation of this kind of war of nerves and a play [by Russia] on this long-standing myth that, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was some kind of a commitment on the part of both the United States and its allies that Nato would not expand,” he added.
High stakes tactics could backfire for Russia
Ultimately, however, this high-pressure strategy could prove counterproductive for Russia and result in more severe sanctions, an end to future negotiations over security demands, and a strengthening rather than a weakening of Nato, should Russia decide to invade Ukraine – a move it has denied it is planning.
“Russia is at the limits of the kind of brinkmanship that one can play and the reaction has not in any way been a sort of meek acceptance,” said Hanhimaki.
“If anything the reaction has been for Nato to join ranks and set a much more united front than they may have done in the last 20 to 30 years. It has even provoked countries that are neutral at the moment to perhaps consider a future Nato membership.”
While neither Sweden nor Finland is currently seeking Nato membership and remain non-aligned, both countries recently underscored that they reserve the right to join and to make their own security policy choices.
Geneva talks: what to expect
Arriving at a situation where Russia does pull back troops from the border with Ukraine will depend on what confidence-building measures, compromises, or even partial security agreements will emerge from the coming weeks of diplomatic talks.
Bilateral talks will take place on 9 and 10 January in Geneva between US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and Russia's deputy minister of foreign affairs Sergey Ryabkov.
This comes after two initial rounds of “strategic stability dialogues” in July and September between diplomats on a range of issues including arms control, following Biden and Putin’s meeting in June.
The US confirmed in a statement on Thursday that Sherman will be accompanied by a number of representatives from its state and defence departments.
This will be followed by discussions with Nato in Brussels on 12 January and a third set of meetings with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna on 13 January attended by Nato allies, Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet states. Meanwhile, other discussions are taking place this week, with Nato holding an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers today.
Hopes that talks on Sunday will lead to immediate concrete outcomes are slim but a commitment to continuing down the diplomatic path would be seen as a positive step, Hanhimaki said.
“The most likely scenario is that they will not reach any real agreement ... But they will probably isolate some of the different areas to discuss, whether it's nuclear weapons, or so forth. It's in the interest of both sides to keep those talks going. ”
Some topics will be easier to approach. “Russia, in the draft treaty, have said that they don't want certain classes of US weapons deployed in states near Russia or Ukraine. And most of these weapons haven't been deployed there, so it can talk about those kinds of issues,” Angela Stent, a senior adviser to the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in the US, told Geneva Solutions.
The issue of a possible moratorium on the enlargement of Nato or Ukraine’s membership could also be foreseen, Stent added. “No one is going to say categorically, Ukraine will never join Nato, or Nato will never enlarge again, because Russia doesn't have the right to tell Nato what it can and can't do. But you could have some kind of compromise there, which at least takes this issue off the table for the time being.”
Another paramount question will be to what extent the US insists on a military de-escalation at the border with Ukraine before negotiations can proceed. US intelligence has put the number of troops at around 100,000.
On Wednesday, US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken stressed there were two paths ahead – one of “diplomacy and de-escalation” or another of massive consequences if there was renewed aggression against Ukraine.
“I think there would have to be some commitment that says, now that negotiations are beginning, they will withdraw some of their troops and equipment from the border,” Stent, a former member of the senior advisory panel for Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, added.
Another more immediate outcome to look for will be whether the two countries emerge on Monday with an agreed-upon agenda for the next round of discussions. This could include a series of working groups to focus on isolated issues.
“If they're unable to agree on anything that would be of extreme concern. But my sense is that the Russians understand that they're not going to achieve everything that they've asked for, but they still want to see the West has made some concessions and understood their point of view.”
In the long term, however, deep-rooted tensions will be harder to fix, Hanhimaki concluded. “While there is no real ultimate solution or resolution acceptable to everybody – the Ukrainians, Russians and the United States and Nato – something has to change either internally in Russia or elsewhere before we can foresee a true diplomatic acceptable solution to all sides.”