Last weekend, a senior Biden administration official looked at Russia’s military pressure on Ukraine and said the coming week of talks would offer President Vladimir Putin a choice between diplomacy and withering economic penalties.
A week later, after talks in three European cities involving officials from dozens of countries, White House officials and senior diplomats said they still don’t know which path Moscow will take.
“We’re prepared to continue with diplomacy to advance security and stability,” U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday. “We’re equally prepared if Russia chooses a different path.”
Intensive talks between Russia and Western allies yielded posturing and threats but concluded with the two sides seemingly no closer to resolving a standoff that could spiral into one of Europe’s worst security crises in decades.
On Friday, tensions ticked up further. Ukraine said it was targeted by a massive cyberattack that it attributed to Russia, and the White House said it had intelligence that Moscow had planned “false-flag” operations in Eastern Ukraine that would create a pretext for an invasion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Friday that Moscow was running out of patience. Russia had asked the U.S. in December to respond in writing to its demands of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“We will not wait forever,” Mr. Lavrov said. “Our patience has run out…Everyone understands that the situation is not improving. The potential for conflict is growing.”
No further talks have been scheduled, and the U.S. signaled that the ball is in Russia’s court.
“It’s hard to say whether the talks had any effect on Putin‘s thinking because his mind is not readable,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former defense official in the Obama administration. “If he was already firmly intending to undertake a military operation against Ukraine, he may still do that.”
Heading into the talks, U.S. officials had hoped that carrots—the offer of fresh talks on missile deployments and troop exercises—and sticks—in the form of financial sanctions and export controls—would encourage Mr. Putin to engage in diplomacy rather than attack Ukraine.
Yet in direct talks with the U.S. on Monday, in the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday and at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday, Moscow restated key demands that the U.S. and NATO have rejected.
Russia wants NATO to forswear future expansion into Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, curb the alliance’s ties with Ukraine and former Soviet states and restrict military deployments on the territory of the alliance’s Eastern European members.
U.S. and Western officials rejected the demands as “nonstarters,” according to State Department spokesman Ned Price. The U.S. diplomats left the meetings pessimistic about Moscow’s intentions and lack of flexibility, senior U.S. officials said.
Washington described this week’s discussions as a way to air differences and see what might be possible in future talks. But U.S. officials have voiced increasing mistrust of Moscow, and the troop buildup near Ukraine made it hard for NATO and the American side to entertain Russia’s ideas about the future of European security.
“The escalation obviously increases tensions and doesn’t create the best environment for real negotiations,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said after meeting Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Monday.
Mr. Lavrov on Friday blamed Washington for a lack of progress, saying U.S. officials should have been ready to negotiate on key Moscow demands. “The Americans failed to study our proposals in order to arrive at a specific position,” Mr. Lavrov said. “They limited themselves to questions and verbal explanations. We are past that stage.”
U.S. officials say the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is real. Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine and has been moving tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers and other military equipment westward from their bases in its Far East, according to U.S. officials and social-media reports.
U.S. officials have pointed to Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and fomenting of separatist war in eastern Ukraine, warning they are seeing the same signs of imminent conflict.
“That does give you an indication of all the preparations that are under way,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, adding that a potential invasion could begin by mid-February.
Jeffrey Edmonds, a former White House adviser on Russia, said Moscow’s insistence on security demands that the Kremlin knows to be unworkable raises the question whether the talks were anything more than a pretext for aggression.
“The conduct of the Russians during this whole negotiating phase…shows there was never any real desire to reach a negotiated position,” he said.
Still, the difficulties in the talks this week and Russia’s tough approach on the ground against Ukraine could well be part of Moscow’s brass-knuckle negotiating tactics.
“The Russians are succeeding at least in sort of shaking our confidence—that’s what they do in negotiations,” said Sandy Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “The diplomacy may not have run its course.”
While Russian officials have said Moscow doesn’t intend to invade Ukraine, the Kremlin has made clear it has no intention of pulling its troops back from the border.
“If NATO wants to dictate to us how and where to move our armed forces on Russian territory, this is hardly possible,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday. “We are talking about Russian territory.”
If talks break down, Ukrainians worry that Russia could undertake a full-scale invasion.
One option is a large-scale operation aimed at seizing the eastern half of Ukraine, toppling the government or forcing it to negotiate, according to Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of Ukraine’s national security council. A second is an attack using missiles and airstrikes to destroy military and transport infrastructure, taking advantage of Ukraine’s outdated air defenses, he said.
“Large aggression will scare the West, and they will be willing to talk,” Mr. Danylyuk said in an interview.
On the other hand, some analysts say Russia may use its military and security services to interfere in Ukraine but stop short of a full military invasion, perhaps avoiding the harshest sanctions and pressure from the international community.
“They may be able to create more divisions in the West with more graduated aggressions,” said Mr. Vershbow, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.