U.S.-Russia Relations

Cautious optimism after U.S.-Russia talks on Ukraine

Published : January 22, 2022 18:43 IST

Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov shake hands before a new round of talks to diffuse the crisis in Ukraine. Photo: Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/picture alliance/dpa

After talks in Geneva, the U.S. and Russia have agreed to further diplomatic talks to defuse the conflict with Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva for a new round of high-stakes security talks focused on averting the crisis in Ukraine. Though expectations for a breakthrough were low, both diplomats were keen to balm their differences and agreed to hold further discussions on Ukraine.

"We didn't expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clearer path to understanding each other's positions," Blinken told reporters at a press conference after the meeting. Referring to the talks as "frank and substantive," Blinken said U.S. President Joe Biden would be ready to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, if that would resolve the conflict in Ukraine further.

Lavrov also told reporters that the talks were "constructive and useful," with the U.S. agreeing to provide written responses to the Kremlin's demands on Ukraine and NATO next week. The Kremlin wants NATO and its allies to ban Ukraine and former Soviet nations from joining NATO. Its security demands, which were laid out in December last year, also call on NATO to scale back its activities in Eastern Europe.

While Lavrov hinted that the West coming to terms with these demands could diffuse tensions, he stressed that Russia had never threatened the people of Ukraine and had no intention to do so. But Secretary Blinken warned "that deeds and actions, not words, make the difference.”

Oleg Ignatov, International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Russia, thinks such negotiations between Russia and the West, help to buy time. "Negotiations will continue until Russia wants to withdraw from them. But the West is not yet making any fundamental concessions to Russia. If Russia bluffs, the negotiations will go on for a long time and then, perhaps by demanding a lot, Russia will be satisfied with some non-fundamental concessions, for example, on Ukraine,” he told DW.

Hope and determination in Ukraine

As Blinken and Lavrov met, Michal Baranowski, the director of the German Marshall Fund's Warsaw office who is currently in Ukraine, said the atmosphere in Kyiv was filled with hope and determination to fight if diplomatic dialogues failed. "I'm in Kyiv and as these new talks in Geneva began, it was very clear from every politician, citizen and foreign policy expert here, that Ukranians are eager to find a solution. While nobody wants another war, Ukrainians are ready to fight if there is any Russian invasion and many citizens have even volunteered to train in order to protect their country,” he told DW. But he added that the country hasn't been very pleased with the United States' support towards Ukraine over the past week.

Speaking at a White House News Conference about Russia's actions in Ukraine on January 19, U.S. President Joe Biden had said, "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy clearly was not happy with these comments and tweeted, "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”

But ahead of the Geneva talks, President Biden made amends stressing that any Russian invasion would be met with a "severe and coordinated economic response," between the U.S. and its European allies. Secretary Blinken reiterated this stance after meeting Lavrov in Geneva.

E.U. and U.S. still on the same page?

With the U.S. keen to protect Ukraine's sovereignty, the European Union is also eager to gain a seat at the table to diffuse the crisis in the country. Addressing Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron said that "the next few weeks must lead us to finalize a European proposal building a new security and stability order, we must build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in NATO and then submit it to negotiation with Russia.”

But GMF's Baranowski thinks the E.U. wanting its own approach would not be fruitful. "The E.U. has not been a very present actor throughout this crisis. For everyone in Ukraine, President Macron's proposal is actually counterproductive because we are in a moment where we need western unity and the E.U. cannot go away on its own path,” he told DW.

"I have not heard anything strange coming from Macron's mouth," an E.U. diplomat told reporters on Thursday. "I think what he is flagging is that the E.U. and U.S. are on the same page when it comes to dealing with Russia and are working on a serious proposal to ease tensions instead of fighting it out militarily.”

The vague threat of sanctions

Tensions between Moscow and Washington have also brought back the idea of sanction against Russa as one way to diffuse the crisis in Ukraine. Yet after meeting Russia's Lavrov, Secretary Blinken said that a written response to Russia's demands was now the next step on the table. "We're not waiting to take action to counter Russia. We've been engaged in extensive diplomacy around the world. But at the same time we've embarked on a path of defense and deterrence. These things are not mutually exclusive.”

Fabrice Pothier, Chief Strategy Officer of policy group Rasmussen Global, thinks sanctions won’t be a good tool to push Russia back from its current position. "Sanctions towards Russia are a funny thing because while they could cripple Russia's economy, they have not stopped Putin or changed his behavior since 2014," he told DW. "But every time there's a negotiation with Russian counterparts, the West brings up sanctions." Despite the economic threat these would pose for Russia, they are however unlikely to sway Moscow’s course, he believes.