For the past few months NATO has been denouncing a Russian build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border. The US went so far as to state that it expected a Russian invasion earlier this year, to which it nevertheless promised to respond exclusively with sanctions. Now representatives of both powers are meeting in Geneva to "de-escalate" the tension and prevent the invasion supposedly underway. But is all this really about Ukraine? What are Russia's and the US's objectives? Is there a real danger of war? And if so, to what extent?
End of the INF treaty: Russian "strategic depth" disappears and a new scenario opens up between Russia and the USA
INF missiles have a range of between 1,000 and 5500 km.
When Trump tried in 2018 to force a renegotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Missile (INF) treaty, he had his eyes set on curbing Chinese nuclear rearmament. This treaty did not bind China-it was part of the end-of-Cold War balance between Moscow and Washington. But after the expansion of the EU and NATO to the East the treaty had become strategically vital for Russian security.
The US goal was to force Russia to drag China into the same treaty. Trump, as usual played hardball: he accused Russia of having systematically violated the treaty - which was probably true - and threatened to scrap it if Russia did not bring Beijing into the fold. But the relationship between China and Russia is not as US diplomacy then imagined. Russia refused to make the negotiations conditional on Chinese participation and tried to hold them on its own without really having anything to offer.
So the US finally abandoned the treaty... with all the consequences: it resumed the nuclear tests prohibited by the agreement until then in force and took Europe back to the 1980s, opening the possibility of a race with Russia to increase the supply of short- and long-range missiles aimed at capitals all over the continent.
What is Russia demanding?
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
For Russia, US nuclear deployment in Europe would purely and simply mean the loss of its "strategic depth" and therefore of its ability to defend its territory during a protracted conflict. Only from this point of view can the Russian positions in Geneva be understood.
Russia takes it for granted that should Ukraine join NATO, the US will deploy short- and medium-range missiles on its border. Putin invokes the US assurances after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the US would not expand toward Moscow, James Baker's famous "not an inch eastward." But when he threatens to "respond militarily" to that situation, he is not threatening to invade - in fact it is highly doubtful that he had any real capability to occupy the country - he is threatening to massively deploy his own nuclear missiles next to the border.
Something similar is happening with military drills and exercises. It is actually a confession of impotence. Every announcement of joint US-Ukrainian military exercises puts Russia into a costly general mobilization of the army... forcing it to reveal its own military difficulties and limitations, which are no small matter despite Putin's bluster.
Is Russia a victim?
Russian maneuvers in Crimea.
No. Not at all. When Russian diplomats and military officials say that making concessions "would undermine their own security" they are right and indeed it is true that the US is the one that has been raising the military pressure since 2018. But that does not mean that Russia's ambitions are any less imperialistic or its arguments any less warmongering.
The "status quo" which Russia wants to set is a zone of its own influence between its borders and those of NATO, with Belarus, Moldova and - at least - parts of Ukraine and Georgia acting as semi-colonies and buffer states.
And its means are not exactly peaceful or limited to the supposedly Russian "vital zone" either. In his State of Russia message last April, Putin threatened an "asymmetric, swift and harsh" response if NATO crossed his "red lines." In order to figure out what he was referring to, one need only recall the Georgian war of 2008 and shift its goals to Ukraine.
What does the US want?
US soldiers during Trident maneuvers in Ukraine.
Now Putin's representatives in Geneva insist that Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine. No surprise. The Americans also withdrew the missile bluster.
In fact, as negotiators have made explicit, the US is "open to discussing" missile deployments in Eastern Europe and claims to have never wanted to do so in Ukraine. "The U.S. has no intention of doing that," assured one U.S. diplomat, this is an area where we can come to an understanding if Russia is willing to make a reciprocal commitment."
And the same goes for participation in maneuvers outside European NATO territory. The only "red line" is in not disputing its military presence in the Baltic states and the East. In Poland alone it maintains around 4,000 troops, including an armored brigade... and it does not even intend to commit itself to not expanding its deployed units, let alone withdrawing them.
Biden's US is sticking to Trump's playbook: go for every escalation and double down, no matter the ordeal. When last April Putin responded to the Ukrainian-US maneuvers by deploying troops permanently to western Russia, the US responded by threatening to send Patriot missiles to Ukraine. And Russia understood it as the beginning of a new phase in the missile game.
We are extremely concerned about the deployment of elements of the US global missile defense system near Russia. The Mk 41 launchers located in Romania and planned for deployment in Poland have been adapted to the use of the Tomahawk strike systems. If this infrastructure moves on, if the US and NATO missile systems appear in Ukraine, then their flight time to Moscow will be reduced to seven to ten minutes, and with the deployment of hypersonic weapons – to five. For us, this is the most serious challenge – a challenge to our security
That is where the current crisis begins, because that was the starting point for more and more moves of Russian military units to its western regions.
But the real US goal is to reach a stable agreement that will allow it to keep Europe under control at low cost so that it can focus on China. This is by no means limited to Russia not stirring up war in Ukraine.
Europe is not for Europeans
Russian caricature about the end of the INF Treaty
If there is a real starting point of agreement between Russia and the US, it is to leave out the EU... especially in the year when, under French leadership, the Commission and the Council intend to organize the first core of an autonomous European army next to, but not within, NATO.
How the French press reports in that context the non-existence of the EU in the talks with Russia is very significant... blaming Putin in order not to make things even worse with the US.
The whole diplomatic sequence to come is constructed, at the request of the West =USA, to integrate as much as possible the European concerns: after the bilateral talks in Geneva, the negotiations should continue on Wednesday, January 12 in Brussels in a broader framework, during a NATO-Russia Council. They will continue the following day within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Counting, therefore, on the participation of European states in these two forums.
But the American press closest to Biden is not afraid to get to the heart of the issue.
The inescapable fact is that when the United States and Russia sit down in Geneva on Monday to talk about Ukraine and security the Europeans will not be there. And when NATO meets with Russia on Wednesday, the European Union as an institution will not be there, even though 21 states are members of both groups.
Even when major EU nations such as France and Germany have conducted their own talks with Moscow and are integral members of NATO, it is embarrassingly obvious that Russia's President Vladimir Putin considers both NATO and the EU to be subservient to American wishes and decisions.
That irks Europeans to no end at "a very complicated moment in international affairs in Europe, unprecedented since the end of the Cold War," said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst. "It's our security, but we're not there."
U.S., Russia to discuss European security, but without Europeans, New York Times
This is not simply a claim of principle: no one in the EU cares too much about Ukraine's own absence. Nor is it a tantrum, the relationship with Russia is really strategic for European capital in general and even more so for German capital. Fundamental issues for German capital such as the opening of Nord Stream 2 and gas supplies for industry at prices allowing export competitiveness depend in the end on the course of these talks.
The lesson for the EU is obvious. Putin takes revenge for the NordStream 2 delays and EU sanctions by talking to "the boss behind all this" and ignoring Paris and Berlin. And Biden shows that he has taken note of the complaints about the untimely departure from Kabul and the reversal of French contracts in Australia for AUKUS... and that the conclusion he has drawn is that the Europeans must be further disciplined by ignoring them in determining their own imperialist sphere of influence.
The Americans know that if the talks are unsuccessful and the situation deteriorates and degenerates into a massive deployment of short and medium range missiles throughout the continent, the European powers would be even more damaged than Russia, condemned to depend on Washington to be able to enjoy even a retaliatory and deterrent capability.
The Russians, for their part, know that the European energy market, through the Green Deal, whether via Ukraine or the Baltic, will continue to be dependent on Russia... and that in a framework of confrontation, gas prices weigh more in Berlin than the fate of the Donbass.
In the meantime, Russia and the USA know that they can take as much time as they want to reach an agreement because every day that passes makes the impotence of the "European project" clearer.