US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said there are “two paths,” and that the option of “diplomacy and de-escalation” was one of two the US and international community had laid out for Moscow ahead of the meetings.
Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm, Sweden, in December amid growing concern among Western powers that Russia was seeking to invade Ukraine.
The recent escalation in tension has sparked fears of a repeat of 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. This act, the fact that Russia was able to do it and get away with it, triggered years of serious conversations in policy circles about the role of the West and whether or not it was capable of standing up to Russia.
Relations between the West and Russia never rebounded after that point — instead, almost reaching Cold War-level lows. The NATO-Russia Council, founded in 2002 as a talking shop for cooperation between the West and Russia, has not met in over two years.
Blinken said Friday that progress could be made during next week’s diplomatic talks between US, European and Russian officials, but that it had to be a “two-way street” with Russia deescalating its aggression toward Ukraine.
While multiple NATO officials told CNN that, in their view, the fact that Russia has finally agreed to meet is a major concession and a sign that diplomacy could lead to a deescalation, they are also cautious that an increasingly hostile Kremlin might not be meeting in good faith.
It was only last month that Moscow published two draft agreements outlining its demands for defusing tensions on the Ukrainian border. Those demands include rolling back NATO deployments in Eastern Europe to some point in the 1990s, meaning many countries that neighbor Russia and were under the control of the Soviet Union would be less protected by the alliance.
NATO sources say the demands could be “deliberately ridiculous to force a rollback on things like admitting new NATO members, pulling the likes of Ukraine and Finland from the mix,” or could simply be “a performance that allows Russian officials to say they tried to negotiate in order to justify an escalation to their citizens.”
Given both sides’ inflexibility, what is the point of the meeting?
According to officials from the most vocal and oldest NATO members, Wednesday is an opportunity for the alliance to lay down a firm and unified position: If Russia does escalate tensions, it will face “serious economic consequences. We will use tools that weren’t deployed in 2014.”
Officials who spoke to CNN were not forthcoming on what those tools would be because “signposting them would give Russia the opportunity to prepare for them, defeating the purpose,” however it’s fair to say that they would be a mixture of hard economic sanctions and even more NATO on Russia’s doorstep.
Risky as Western hostility might be in provoking Putin, inaction could be worse. “Capitulating to out-of-this-world demands would make the overall situation much more dangerous, as it would just embolden the Kremlin to act aggressively,” says Pasi Eronen, research analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Centre. “Moreover, China and other revisionists are watching the reaction to a Kremlin gamble.”
What is notable when talking to officials and experts is a sense that the West is far less scared of Russia than it has been in recent years. Poisonings and assassination of Russian citizens on foreign soil, brutal suppression and imprisonment of political opponents, interference in foreign elections and the annexation of Crimea have all painted an image of Putin as a strong leader who must be feared.