Russia struck a decidedly pessimistic note on Sunday, rendering the outlook for talks on Ukraine direly uncertain. The Kremlin has ruled out making any concessions under US pressure and demanded Western security guarantees. Misgivings that the forthcoming talks might end rather quickly are, therefore, not wholly unfounded.
Moscow’s hard line has underscored the fragile prospects for negotiations that the United States hopes will avert the danger of another Russian invasion of Ukraine. The raging tension in the former Soviet satellite has been described as the “tensest point” in US-Russian relations ever since the Cold War ended three decades ago.
While the talks are due in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has said it is entirely possible that the art and craft of diplomacy could end abruptly after a single meeting. “This is an entirely possible scenario and the Americans should have no illusions about this. We will not make any concessions under pressure and in the course of threats that are constantly being formed by the western participants of the upcoming talks.”
While Mr Ryabkov will lead the Russian delegation in Geneva, Moscow is not optimistic about going into the negotiations. Ergo, little or nothing can be expected from the impending talks on Ukraine, and over three rounds in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna.
Nor for that matter does Washington expect a breakthrough, acutely aware as it is of the contretemps. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at best hopes to find some common ground, but short of a breakthrough. “I don’t think we’are going to see any breakthrough in the coming week”, he told CNN’s State of the Union. “We are going to be able to put things on the table. The Russians will do the same… and we’ll see if there are grounds for moving forward,” he said. In a sense, Europe too has thrown its hat into the ring. As much was clear from a statement of France’s European Affairs minister, Clement Beaune. He was emphatic when he said that “Europe shouldn’t be absent from the negotiation table.”
The idea seemingly is to put in place a latter-day Concert of Europe and America on the one hand and against Russia. Mr. Ryabkov has compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war, and is uncompromising in the line that Russia had been signaling for weeks. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are gathered within reach of the border with Ukraine in preparation for what Washington and Kiev say could be an invasion, eight years after Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
Thus far, Russia has denied invasion plans; it says it is responding to what it calls “aggressive and provocative behaviour” from the Nato military alliance and Ukraine. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ukraine defies a breakthrough. Yet, for the sake of peace, it needs one.