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Hopes of a peaceful exit from the crisis are fainter after days of talks. As the military build-up near the border continues, how far will Putin go?
A week that began with low expectations has ended with a still bleaker mood. No one believed that three rounds of talks between the US, Russia and others would magically resolve the Ukraine crisis. But with 100,000 Russian troops massed near the country’s borders, the build up of weaponry and growing sabre-rattling from Moscow, the hope was that the negotiations could help to probe Vladimir Putin’s intentions, and perhaps offer him pathways towards an eventual de-escalation.
After several days of dialogue, the mood is glummer. On Thursday, the Polish foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, warned that Europe was the closest to war it had been for three decades. After the Nato discussions, and before the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe talks concluded, Russian’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said the parties had reached a dead end.
Russian troop flows continued as the talks took place. The head of the International Energy Agency complained that Russia was withholding gas exports, deepening Europe’s energy crisis. On Friday morning, Ukraine said it had experienced a massive overnight cyber-attack on official websites. Shortly afterwards, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters that Moscow had “run out of patience”. The US alleged that Moscow has positioned saboteurs in Ukraine ready for a “false flag” operation to use as a pretext for a Russian attack.
Washington and Moscow were never going to agree to each other’s headline demands – Russia, that Nato must close its doors to new members in the east (though it knows full well Nato has no plans to let in Ukraine and Georgia, but cannot say so) and roll back troops and weaponry in central and eastern Europe; the US, that Russia should withdraw from Ukraine’s borders. The US sensibly focused on issues that could reduce security risks and be of interest to Russia: missile agreements and military drills. But these are at best of second order importance to Mr Putin, who appears increasingly anxious to force Nato to shrink its sphere of influence, satisfying a long-held Russian grievance over its expansion, and end the standoff over Ukraine that began when Russia annexed Crimea and sparked the conflict in the Donbas. A 2015 peace deal, which has not prevented ongoing skirmishing, is said to be close to collapse. Russia denies it is planning to invade but has talked of a “military-technical response” to what it calls Nato aggression.
None of this means that the talks were a mistake – even if it proves to be the case, as some fear, that Russia participated in them as part of its march towards war. Mr Putin’s record gives no reason to doubt his willingness to go to war, and he paid little price for 2014. But it was right to offer Russia opportunities for de-escalation, even if it shows little interest in taking them. Nor does the depressing end to the week prove that military action – still less a full scale invasion – is inevitable.
There is a relatively short period of winter in which an offensive is feasible, and Mr Putin cannot leave his troops in place for ever – though he could leave hardware in position. Western nations are flagging sanctions packages and the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a deterrent. Defence assistance for Ukraine – including through bolstering its efforts to fend off cyber-attacks – is necessary, but is unlikely to be sufficient to be gamechanging. Mr Putin’s intentions remain uncertain, with his diplomats perhaps not much clearer than their western counterparts. The Kremlin has said it will wait for written responses to its demands from Washington and Nato next week. As discouraging as the signals this week were, the waiting game continues.