Russia assures US it has no intention of attacking Ukraine

First round of Washington-Moscow talks in Geneva ends without agreement
Biden y Putin

AP/DENIS BALIBOUSE  -   US President Joe Biden, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right

The Swiss city of Geneva on Monday hosted the first round of talks between the United States and Russia aimed at finding a way out of the crisis in Ukraine, a country that has been under threat of invasion by Moscow for several weeks. The Kremlin increased tension in the region by sending 100,000 troops to the border. An action aimed at regaining control of its zone of influence in the face of the advance of Western organisations such as NATO and the European Union.

The US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, and the number two in the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergei Ryabkov, led the delegations in a week that was a defining week for diplomacy. A sense of déjà vu pervades the atmosphere, and reminiscences of the Cold War have been unavoidable in what is already the worst moment in bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow in three decades. The frictions are now spilling over into Ukraine.

In what was the first contact since December, when Biden and Putin held their last telephone conversation, the Russian delegation assured that it had "no intention of attacking Ukraine". This was revealed by Ryabkov himself in a press conference at the end of the meeting. However, the diplomat described NATO's momentary refusal to concede to his demands as a "grave mistake". Statements that fuel the hypothesis that the show of force on the Ukrainian border was intended to bring Washington to the negotiating table.

Militares ucranianos
PHOTO/AFP  -  Ukrainian military patrol along a frontline position with Russian-backed separatists, not far from Avdiivka, Donetsk region

Russia threatened an attack on Ukraine in order to hold a direct dialogue with the United States and convey its demands. This dialogue has only just begun. In this sense, Putin wants guarantees that Ukraine will not accede to the Atlantic alliance and, above all, that its neighbour will not build NATO military facilities on its territory, an action that could take place even though Kiev is not a member of the organisation. Otherwise, Moscow would retaliate.

Sherman's response has been blunt: "One country cannot change the border of another by force, dictate the terms of third countries or prohibit them from having alliances". A message that defends Ukraine's independence and external action while denouncing Russian interference in the country, whose historical ties with Russia go back even before it was a major Soviet republic.

Nearly a decade after the outbreak of the Maidan revolution, the pro-European mass mobilisations that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Kiev has in recent years pursued a path of rapprochement with Western institutions despite multiple reprisals from Moscow, which responded to the estrangement of its former ally by annexing the Crimean peninsula and backing separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. This gave rise to a still simmering military confrontation.

Acuerdos de Minsk
AFP/ CHARLES PLATIAU  -  Ukraine's President Volodymir Zelenskiy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the press conference after the summit at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on December 9, 2019

The Minsk agreements, signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, detailed a roadmap for ending the conflict. The pact envisaged, among other things, the reabsorption of the separatist provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk into the Ukrainian state under a regime of special autonomy. Conditions that, according to Ukraine, would compromise its own sovereignty. The final stalemate in the talks, led by Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, reignited the crisis.

The growing closeness between NATO and Ukraine, reinforced in June 2020 with the granting of Enhanced Opportunity Partner status to Kiev, has unsettled the Kremlin, whose main objective is to curb Western influence in the post-Soviet space, a region it considers its own and where it intends to establish a new Warsaw Pact, as well as to preserve its strategic security space. These goals are seriously threatened by the majority demands of Ukrainian society, which wants to join the Atlantic alliance and become part of the EU.

The Geneva talks will be followed by a summit between Russia and the NATO Council in Brussels on Wednesday. A day later, Vienna will host a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Two key dates for the evolution of tensions. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed his willingness to reach agreements with Russia and initiate a new process to avoid the outbreak of a new armed conflict. However, he also demanded Moscow's willingness to find solutions.