The Biden administration didn’t blink in this opening round in Geneva. In the aftermath of the meeting, U.S. officials prepared for the possibility that Russia could break off the talks and invade Ukraine as far west as Kyiv, or launch cyberattacks and other provocations to destabilize the Ukrainian government.
U.S. intelligence officials think President Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet decided which option he prefers. To prepare for the worst case of an all-out invasion, U.S. and allied intelligence officials are visiting Kyiv to plan a well-armed insurgency that could severely harass the attackers. If Russia climbed the ladder of escalation and tried to punish the United States with cyberattacks, the Biden administration is ready to respond in kind.
Why is Putin considering such risks in Ukraine? Administration officials think the Russian leader fears that the window is closing on his ability to affect the political future there. Kyiv is moving inexorably away from Russia and toward the West; it’s drawing closer to NATO, to the point that it’s almost a de facto member, even though actual membership is distant, if ever.
This crisis is likely still in its early stages, administration officials believe. And before Putin takes the irrevocable step of launching a war in Europe, White House officials are framing a diplomatic approach that could provide the Russian leader with a version of what he says he wants — a new security architecture in Europe — without compromising any important NATO principles. That’s the ideal outcome of such a crisis: an agreement that makes all sides safer and more secure.
Ryabkov’s own words suggest that perhaps there’s a pathway forward. Before the meeting with Sherman, he was asked by the newspaper Izvestia about Russian demands for “security guarantees.” Ryabkov’s answer was telling in its seeming willingness to compromise — in contrast with the strident public comments Monday. “Diplomacy involves seeking solutions based on a balance of interests,” he said. “We do not intend to contest every single objection — otherwise it would be a preemptory demand on our part rather than a proposal to negotiate.”
Biden administration officials have explored a package of proposals that might address Putin’s insistence that he’s threatened by NATO, without undermining the alliance. Take the draft treaty on “security guarantees” that Russia announced in December. The United States rejects some provisions, such as a formal ban on Ukraine’s NATO membership. But U.S. officials see other Russian draft treaty language — invoking the Helsinki Final Act, the 1997 Founding Act between Russia and NATO, and limits on short- and intermediate-range missiles — as building blocks for an agreement that the United States and its allies would welcome.
The Biden administration would probably support, for example, joint limits on military exercises and on some forward-deployed offensive weapons systems. Putin has expressed concerns about missiles that would give Russia only a few minutes warning before a decapitating attack on Moscow; this demand could probably also be addressed. The same with Putin’s complaints about flights near Russia’s borders by nuclear-capable B-52 and B-1 bombers. That sort of nuclear saber-rattling serves no one in 2022.
If Putin wants security assurances such as these, he’s probably pushing on an open door. Explains William B. Taylor Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine: “A return to the transparency, confidence building and risk reduction that would come with an agreement on military exercises would make both sides, NATO and Russia, more secure. If these negotiations proceed, it will have been worth it.”
But Putin may well desire something more, which is to rewrite history. In her book “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest,” Angela Stent writes that the Russian leader wants the West “to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union” and to “renegotiate the end of the Cold War.” Those atavistic dreams are impossible.
Countries that have been nursing a grudge, as Putin’s Russia does, are often tempted to strike at what they think is the core of the problem. Israel did that when it invaded Lebanon in 1982. The United States did the same in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Both are widely recognized as costly strategic mistakes. Now, Russia is considering a similar roll of the dice.
Russia’s desire to feel secure within its borders isn’t unreasonable. Every country wants that. But if Putin thinks he can achieve this goal by invading Ukraine, he’s almost certain to fail.