US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tempered hopes for progress in this week's spate of meetings with Russia by describing the situation as "talking in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine's head."
NATO expert Jim Townsend adds a stark detail: "And the hammer's cocked."
Russian diplomats have arrived for their first talks with NATO allies since July 2019 in a position of relative strength, having succeeded in catalyzing the Biden administration, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to fill a week with meetings focused on little else but how to convince the Kremlin to back away from the border with Ukraine.
Rejecting Russia's demands
Russia's starting demand for "ironclad" guarantees that the alliance won't expand to Ukraine or other nearby countries — already rejected by NATO and by the US again in Monday's talks in Geneva — makes a stalemate seem like a foregone conclusion, whether or not both sides are willing to engage in somewhat-less-controversial discussions about arms control and conventional armed forces. It raises concerns that the Kremlin just wants an excuse to proclaim any possible diplomatic solution stillborn.
Townsend, who was a high-ranking Pentagon official when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the most urgent task for the US and NATO diplomacy in the nearest term was to "make sure the gun doesn't go off and to slowly get that gun away from [Ukraine's] head." After that, he said, a system must be put in place to ensure another such attack "can't be put together quietly, secretly without being seen," referring to the way in which Russia amassed troops ahead of its 2014 actions without raising adequate alarm bells in Brussels and Washington.
Townsend believes that the Obama administration, in which he was then serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, should have responded in a more robust way to Russia's aggression. Today's situation, he explains, stems in large part from that failure to imagine that Russian President Vladimir Putin would go so far as to invest in positioning tens of thousands of troops and military resources in the west of his country on an open-ended timeline.
He said the same mistake must not be repeated, recommending an increase in the amount of training done with Ukraine in case it should have to go to war with Russia, and even that the US and other allies pre-position war-fighting equipment on Ukrainian territory as a "trip wire" in case of any future incursion.
Europe on edge
While Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has threatened to cut off talks even before they got to NATO if he didn't feel his side's concerns were being sufficiently addressed, Michal Baranowski, senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, was relieved the talks didn't end early for another reason: fears that the US may be willing to negotiate about troops stationed in Europe. "It's good news we don't have some kind of quick and dirty agreement," Baranowski told DW.