MOSCOW — Talks between U.S. and Russian officials Monday in Geneva open a round of diplomatic meetings seeking to defuse tensions over Moscow’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine. There are many challenges in finding common ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that he will find his own “military technical” solution if NATO does not stop its “aggression.” The Biden administration and its allies have stood by Ukraine and its aspirations of deepening its bonds with the West — although making clear that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO membership any time soon.
Putin has shown an ability to rattle NATO leaders and keep Europe off balance, demanding sweeping security guarantees that include NATO’s ruling out any future expansion in Ukraine or other countries along Russia’s borders. NATO leaders insist that Moscow can’t dictate how the alliance moves and undermine its open-door policy.
Russia’s massing of troops and equipment near Ukraine twice over the past year has raised U.S. intelligence fears of an invasion, confronting President Biden with his most pressing security crisis.
How did we get here? Moscow continued to increase its threats and pressure as the U.S.-Russian relationship plummeted over the past year.
In a TV interview, Biden agreed that Putin was “a killer,” comments that outraged Russia and prompted it to temporarily recall its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov. In the months that followed, Putin, facing opposition protests and criticism at home, steadily jacked up anti-American and anti-Ukrainian sentiment with warnings that Russia was threatened by outside enemies.
In March, Russia launched a massive military buildup near its border with Ukraine, prompting Ukraine’s then-military chief, Ruslan Khomchak, to warn that the Russian action threatened Ukraine. Russia pulled out some of its forces in April but left much more of its equipment. In October Russia resumed military construction near Ukraine.
Russia sent a message of military strength, launching a Kalibr cruise missile in the Sea of Japan on April 6. Throughout the year, Russia conducted several tests on its hypersonic Tsirkon rocket. Putin stated that Russia’s supersonic missiles were world-leading, and they are impossible to stop.
Biden announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and put sanctions on 32 individuals and companies accused of interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and other actions including spreading disinformation. These were added to earlier sanctions over the near-fatal poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August 2020. After being treated in Germany, Navalny was returned to Russia and is now in Russian prison. Russia responded by exiling American diplomats. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan left Russia temporarily.
Biden and Putin held a summit in Geneva, agreeing on little except to pursue talks on arms control and cybersecurity. The Kremlin called the meeting “rather positive.” But on June 23, the British warship HMS Defender sailed close to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, a signal to Moscow that NATO does not recognize the waters as Russian. Russia said it fired warning shots, and Putin said later that he could have sunk the ship if he wanted.
On the eve of NATO’s Sea Breeze naval exercise with Ukraine in the Black Sea, Putin said Western military support for Ukraine creates “significant security problems” for Russia.
Putin prepared the ground for possible renewed aggression against Ukraine in a long essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” claiming that Russia and Ukraine were “one people — a single whole.” He argued that Ukrainian sovereignty was “possible only in partnership with Russia.” And he accused the West of using Ukraine as an aggressive “anti-Russia project,” akin to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”
The fumbled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was taken by the Kremlin as a telling sign of American decline, signaling that Washington was unlikely soon to commit forces in distant places.
Russia held its massive Zapad 2021 military exercises, demonstrating a formidable fighting force after years of modernization. Russia became increasingly annoyed by NATO airstrikes and naval patrols at its western border. These exercises were held as Russia felt more isolated.
NATO announced the expulsion of eight diplomats in Russia’s NATO mission for alleged spying, and Russia swiftly suspended its NATO mission and closed NATO’s Moscow office. The first use of a Turkish Bayraktar drone by Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists was in October. By the end of the month, Russia had resumed its military buildup near Ukraine, sparking new fears of a massive invasion.
Putin accused the West of ignoring “our warnings about red lines,” referring to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. Putin claimed that Russia was implementing its hardline policies. Our recent warnings were heard, and they are having an impact. He said tensions had risen. He added that Russia should maintain the tensions “as long as possible.”
Putin complained about NATO’s missile-defense system in Romania and the alliance’s plans for a similar network in Poland. Putin stated that Moscow wouldn’t accept missile systems being deployed in Ukraine.
In a video meeting, Biden warned Putin of tough economic sanctions if Putin invaded Ukraine. Russian Presidential aide Yuri Ushakov stated that Putin demanded binding security guarantees, which included a request for NATO to not be expanded east. Russia released its list of demands Dec. 17.
In his major annual news conference, Putin intensified his combative rhetoric. He said that the West had brought missiles “to our doorstep” and must offer security guarantees to Moscow “right now.”
Biden and Putin held their second call in a month, at Putin’s request. Biden reiterated his threat of Western sanctions in the event that Russia attacks Ukraine. Putin warned against any West-led sanctions that could cause an irreparable damage to relations. Russian Presidential aide Ushakov said that Russia is not open to compromises or long-drawn talks, and will insist upon its security requirements.