Senior diplomats from the US and Russia are meeting in the Swiss city of Geneva for the first of a series of crunch talks aimed at defusing tension over Ukraine.
The stakes are high for these talks on Monday. However, both parties have wildly disparate expectations. The United States and other Western powers want to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.
Russia, on the other hand, wants to talk about its maximalist demands for Nato to withdraw from eastern Europe. It demands that NATO withdraw its forces from former Soviet republics, halt any further eastward expansion, and rule out Ukraine joining the alliance.
Some US officials believe these demands are designed to be rejected and used as a pretext for military action. Other diplomats believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming high in order to extract concessions from a Western alliance willing to give ground in order to avoid war.
According to them, Russian President Vladimir Putin is effectively demanding the end of Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and the establishment of a Russian “sphere of influence.”
- EXPLAINED: Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine?
- ANALYSIS: EU looks for role in Ukraine crisis
- CONTEXT: Russians see no chance of conflict
A high price
Given this, the United States and NATO have dismissed the majority of Russia’s demands as “non-starters.” Furthermore, the US has categorically denied reports that it is considering troop reductions.
However, American officials have stated that they are willing to consider limiting military exercises and missile deployments.
One possibility is a partial resumption of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States abandoned in 2019 after Russia was accused of violating its provisions. Other ideas include more measures to increase trust and transparency between Russia and the United States.
Some European allies fear that even this would be too much of a reward for Russia, too high a price to pay for avoiding conflict in Ukraine.
They are concerned that the US will be willing to give up too much in order to focus more on China and domestic issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy.
The US is aware of these concerns and has repeatedly stated that it will not agree to anything concerning Ukraine or European security without the participation of those countries.
In any case, President Putin has already made some progress, gaining a platform this week to air his grievances and force the US and Europe to engage in his Nato reform agenda.
Both parties are downplaying the likelihood of an immediate agreement. But that doesn’t mean the discussions this week aren’t important.
A crucial staging post
At best, the talks will shed more light on Mr Putin’s intentions and reveal whether or not he is serious about engaging in diplomacy.
At worst, a breakdown could lead to war, allowing Mr Putin to claim to his domestic audience that the West refused to talk and agree to his demands, forcing him to act to ensure Russia’s security.
Western diplomats say they are prepared for what they see as a false narrative: thus, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisting that the alliance is ready for any Russian military action, and the US and Europe issuing firm warnings that any invasion would be met with massive economic sanctions.
As a result, this week’s talks could serve as a critical diplomatic staging post, with the fate of Ukraine and Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture hanging in the balance.