Reanimation package of reforms > News > Columns > What Next for Diplomacy Between the West and Russia?

What Next for Diplomacy Between the West and Russia?

The crisis between the West and Russia, including the Kremlin’s increasing military buildup threatening Ukraine, is in a critical period after last week’s intensive bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

The lack of diplomatic breakthroughs and the new actions taken by Moscow and its proxies are likely to ratchet up tensions as the transatlantic allies discuss next steps to respond and counter President Vladimir Putin’s moves. This week already sees Germany’s foreign minister and the US secretary of state engaging in further high-stakes diplomacy with trips to Kyiv, Moscow, and Geneva. Below, GMF experts discuss key takeaways from last week’s high-stakes conversations with Russian officials. They also discuss what the future holds with transatlantic perspectives from Berlin, Warsaw, Kyiv, and Washington.

Poland Looks for Unity and Resolve for a Long Confrontation

Michal Baranowski, director of GMF’s Warsaw office

Russia’s drums of war are getting louder. Last week’s diplomacy did not bring any concrete signs of de-escalation from the Kremlin. Not only did it escalate its rhetoric but on Friday Ukraine suffered a cyberattack that had Russian fingerprints all over it. Reports suggest that Russia is in the process of transporting additional troops and equipment to areas near the border with Ukraine. The Kremlin is clearly trying to strengthen its diplomatic position and to force the West into giving in by further escalating its threats toward the country. The talks last week also did not bring a definite answer to the question of whether for Russia diplomacy serves as a fig leaf before an attack or there is a chance that the process was the beginning of engaging in a genuine dialog. So far there are very few signs that Kremlin is serious about finding a diplomatic solution to this conflict it has created.

The good news is that the West has not given in to President Vladimir Putin’s outrageous demands. In Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna, the United States and European countries rejected his demands to limit Ukraine’s sovereignty, turn the country into a sphere of Russian influence by closing NATO’s door to it, and to establish a security gray zone in Central Europe by having NATO pull all its forces from countries that have joined the alliance since 1997. Some in Poland and Central Europe worried that the bilateral US-Russia meeting in Geneva last week would mark the beginning of a modern-day Munich, but that has clearly not happened.

However, there is a sense in Warsaw that this is only the beginning of the confrontation and that NATO will be severely tested before it is all over. Germany’s position is one cause of such worries. On the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the new coalition government seems to have walked back from the already not-very-forward position of the previous government. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht’s statement that the pipeline should not be implicated in the current conflict with Russia was disappointing, to say the least.

The view in Warsaw could be summarized as “So far so good, but it is not over yet.” If Putin hoped to break the West’s resolve and unity only by amassing troops on Ukraine’s border, he miscalculated. The expectation is that further escalation is likely as Russia tries to divide the West and gain some ultimately minor concessions. But a more violent escalation cannot be excluded. The key will remain the West’s resolve, unity, and solidarity with Ukraine in the face of Russian belligerence.

The United States Focuses on Alliance Response as Russia Ups the Ante

Jonathan Katz, director of Democracy Initiatives and senior fellow

As diplomatic efforts last week at the NATO-Russia Council, at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and at the US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue failed to move the Kremlin from its drumbeat of war toward Ukraine and issuing new ultimatums, the United States moved quickly to coalesce and build out a more comprehensive alliance response. There have been tougher statements and more detailed planning by US officials, indicating a new phase in policy toward Russia and Putin’s manufactured crisis. Making sure the “Transatlantic alliance is back” and that European countries are unified and in sync with the United States is essential to the Biden administration’s strategy. However, Washington understands that this is no small task given the chasm in trust, the hangover from the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Trump years, and the challenging political, economic, energy, and health landscape on both sides of the Atlantic.

The United States will focus on maintaining an allied response to Russia’s continued military buildup on the border with Ukraine and its attempts to destabilize the country through cyberattacks like the one witnessed last week or through its use of energy as a weapon, as pointed out by the International Energy Agency. It was important to see NATO and the EU quickly mobilizing to support Ukraine as it addresses cyberattacks and continues to build resilience in its critical and security infrastructure. Transatlantic unity is essential to presenting a credible deterrent to Russia as it seeks to use Nord Stream 2 and other diplomatic, energy, or economic tools to pull the transatlantic allies apart.

Threat assessments and intelligence continue to suggest that the Kremlin is willing to use force again in Ukraine to achieve its objectives, and that will continue to drive the Biden administration’s efforts. The United States and its European allies need to double down on diplomacy through NATO and the EU as the transatlantic community faces the most serious challenge to its security and stability since the end of the Cold War. They must determine how to keep the door to dialogue open with Russia while continuing to reject its unacceptable demands. This means that the United States, NATO, and the EU must thread the needle on calibrating short-term and long-term credible offensive and defensive measures, sanctions, military support for Ukraine, and other steps to make this crisis painful for Russia.

Security Concerns Call for Strengthening Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic Integration

Olena Prokopenko, visiting fellow

Last week’s talks with Russia ended in a resounding rejection of the outrageous ultimatums put forward by Kremlin, including the ones for NATO to abandon its open-door policy and to end its military presence in nearly half of its member states. In fact, these demands are likely to yield the opposite outcome, with more European countries considering NATO accession in the face of the threat from Russia.

Despite Russia’s initial claim that failure to accept any of its conditions would result in the termination of further dialogue, all sides eventually agreed that the negotiations should continue. This is cause for cautious optimism that no full-fledged aggression against Ukraine should be expected immediately, despite the ongoing military buildup at the border with no commitments about de-escalation from the Russian side.

The growing security concerns call for strengthening Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration efforts. In particular, this means accelerating the implementation of long-overdue changes critical for national security—energy-sector, anti-monopoly, judiciary, defense, and security-service reforms. It also means ensuring the uninterrupted operation of anti-corruption agencies, enhancing cyber security, enabling civic oversight of intelligence, and moving forward defense reform. In the defense sector, Ukraine must improve the governance of state enterprises, reduce secrecy, and combat corruption in procurement.

The Ukrainian elites should not use external security threats as an opportunity to roll back critical reforms or score quick political points. The country’s leadership should also end the political persecution of its opponents and predecessors, and instead join forces with all pro-Ukraine democratic actors in the domestic arena to fight Russia’s aggression.

Ukraine should also accelerate NATO approximation by further implementing alliance standards and complying with the NATO-Ukraine annual national programs developed and monitored in coordination with civil-society experts. It should make the most of the military assistance provided by foreign partners, including bilateral advisory programs aimed at strengthening the capabilities of the armed forces.

For its part, the international community should adopt legislation envisaging strong personal sanctions against Russia’s leadership, Russia’s defense industry and banking sector, companies operating secure messaging systems, including SWIFT, as well as sanctions targeting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is a major security risk for Ukraine and Europe, in case of further aggression against Ukraine. The country’s Western partners should also significantly increase their defense and cyber security assistance to a country on the frontlines of democracy fighting one of the world’s largest armies.

Furthermore, it is critical that NATO expand its military presence in the Baltic states, as they have requested, and in Poland; give Ukraine as a long-standing reliable partner the NATO Plus status proposed in the US Congress; and offer it clear prospects of NATO membership conditioned on specific and tangible reform deliverables.

Most importantly,while the threat of a full-fledged invasion may have been avoided for the moment, this is no time to forget that 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory in Donbas and Crimea have been occupied by Russia for nearly eight years now. Consolidated international action, including the steps listed above, would help discourage Russia’s ongoing as well as potential aggression by raising its costs. This is crucial for Ukraine’s and global security.

Germany’s Divided Government Aims for De-escalation

Markus Ziener, Helmut Schmidt fellow

The crisis around Ukraine poses the first major test to Germany’s new government that consists of three very different parties. The way forward on how to deal with Russia is anything but clear. While Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens party is pursuing a tough line toward Moscow, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats is still somewhat vague in his responses.

During question time in the German parliament on January 12, Scholz only expressed concern about the situation and called for a revival of the Normandy Format in which France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine used to discuss the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. The forum has not played any major role since 2019 and only recently have there been efforts to bring it back to life. In contrast, Baerbock said that “the sovereignty of Ukraine and the immutability of borders in Europe are non-negotiable.” In case of a new military aggression against Ukraine, she has said, Russia would pay a high price.

Security circles in Berlin suspect that by demanding guarantees against a further eastward expansion of NATO, Russia wants nothing less than a political reorganization of Europe. This could eventually lead to an acknowledgement of spheres of influence, limits to the sovereignty of the states of Central Europe, and a diminished role for the United States in Europe. “This would be tantamount to a new edition of the infamous Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty for the socialist countries,” writes Joachim Krause, the director of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.

There are also differences with the government when it comes to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, owned by the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, that is supposed to start later this year bringing gas from Russia via Germany to the Western European market. The pipeline will double the total capacity of the Nord Stream system, from 55 to 110 billion cubic meters per year. The pipeline is awaiting regulatory approval from Berlin and Brussels, with certification expected to be completed in by the summer.

The Greens opposed Nord Stream 2 early on, mainly because of the resulting political damage to Eastern European countries. They now want to use the de facto completed pipeline as leverage against Russia in case of military operations against Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are trying to decouple the Nord Stream 2 issue from the security talks around Ukraine. Kevin Kühnert, the party’s chairman and general secretary, last week even called for an end to the debate and demanded to simply get the pipeline going.

Given the disagreement within the coalition, Germany will try everything possible to keep the conflict from escalating, if only to spare the government a test of endurance. During her visit in Moscow on Tuesday, immediately after having been in Kyiv, Baerbock stood her ground and underscored that the fundamental values Germany and other European countries stand for are not up for negotiation. She reiterated that Germany is ready to pay a high economic price if need be. With this, she clearly alluded to the possibility of using the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as leverage in case Russia moves troops into Ukraine. Somewhat more cautiously, Scholz seconded this approach at a press conference in Berlin. “It is clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine,” he said.

By Michal Baranowski, Jonathan D. Katz, Olena Prokopenko, Markus Ziener for the German Marshall Fund of theUnited States