Jan 11, 2022 - World

1990s diplomacy colors Russia's demands in U.S., NATO talks

Reproduced from Wall Street Journal; Map: Axios Visuals

Russian officials drew their talking points for Monday's meeting with U.S. officials in Geneva from a draft Kremlin treaty proposal that would force NATO to withdraw forces to its 1997 borders.

Why it matters: The question of whether NATO could expand to the east, which Russia has viewed as an existential threat, is at the heart of this week's security talks. Under the Russian request, the alliance would turn back the clock to 1997, before Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries joined it.

  • The U.S. and NATO view that as a complete non-starter.
  • A failure of diplomacy this week, though, could lead President Vladimir Putin to attempt to re-establish Russia's Cold War "sphere of influence" by force, beginning with an invasion of Ukraine.

Flashback: Putin's grievances are driven by a misrepresentation of history, beginning with his claim that the West promised during negotiations over the reunification of Germany in 1990 that NATO would expand "not one inch eastward."

  • It's true then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III used that language in early negotiations with Russia, but that provision never made it into the final treaty reunifying Germany, as Baker's biographer Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times.
  • In 1997, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, effectively green-lighting enlargement on the basis the two sides "do not consider each other as adversaries" and would exercise military restraint.
  • Much has changed in the 25 years since: Russia accuses NATO of violating that treaty by deploying forces in post-1997 countries, while the West says Moscow brought these problems on itself by invading Georgia and Ukraine.

Driving the news: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was categorical in her rejection of Russia's demands for NATO on Monday, telling reporters after more than 7 hours of talks in Geneva: "We will not allow anyone to slam close NATO's open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance."

  • Her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, admitted that Moscow does not currently see any "political will" from the U.S. to act on "our top priority."
  • But the veteran diplomat held firm on the Kremlin's red lines, insisting that Russia needs "ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees, not assurances," that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO.

What's next: Despite sharing a pessimistic outlook, both sides said no decisions would be made on the path forward until the conclusion of two more multilateral meetings this week — the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday.

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