In U.S.-Russia Talks, How Far Can Putin Turn Back the Clock?

WASHINGTON — To the Biden administration, the negotiations that began in earnest on Monday morning in Geneva are about defusing the chances of a major war in Europe — potentially ignited by a Russian invasion of Ukraine — and upholding the principle that nations do not rewrite their borders by force.

For Vladimir V. Putin, the issue may be much larger: Whether he can roll back the clock to the mid-1990s, using this particular moment in history to, in the words of the conservative historian Niall Ferguson, “re-create the old Soviet sphere of influence.”

Russia’s demands, if taken at face value, are striking: If the West wants an end to the threats to Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s government has declared, it must pull back its arms, its forces and even its nuclear weapons from former Soviet states — and commit that Ukraine and other states in the region will never join the NATO alliance.

If that stance has echoes of the Berlin crisis of 1961, which led to the building of the wall, or the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact powers in 1968, well, the similarities (and some significant differences) are there.

The lesson of the past year may be that while the Cold War is long over, Cold War-like behavior lives on. And in the three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the tension between the world’s two principal nuclear adversaries has never been worse — making the pathway to a peaceful de-escalation harder to discern.

“Europe has faced such ugly moments too often before,” Frederick Kempe, the chief executive of the Atlantic Council, wrote over the weekend, “where matters of life and death — and of war and peace — depended on the balance of power and test of wills between despots and more benevolent forces.”

Decades after President George Bush declared in 1989 that the time had arrived to “let Europe be whole and free,” President Biden finds himself at a “moment of truth for the dying embers of that aspiration,” Mr. Kempe wrote.

The good news, analysts note, is that no one is threatening to roll out the most fearsome weapons. Just the other day, Washington and Moscow — along with the other original nuclear states, Britain, France and China — reaffirmed in a statement the Reaganesque line that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

But for anyone who imagined in the early 1990s that Russia in 2022 might be integrated into Europe, what is unfolding this week in a series of meetings in Western Europe is a reminder that there was nothing permanent about the security disposition of post-Cold War Europe. To Mr. Putin, at least, it was a temporary arrangement, subject to renegotiation when the distribution of power in the global order looked promising to him.

The depth of the gap was evident in the public comments of Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, before he went to dinner Sunday night with Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state. He barely mentioned Ukraine. Russia’s goal, he said, was far larger — and the Americans, he argued, had a “lack of understanding” about Moscow’s strategic objectives.

“We need to assure the curtailing of the destructive NATO activities that have been taking place for decades and bring NATO back to positions that are essentially equivalent to what was the case in 1997,” Mr. Ryabkov said. “But it is precisely on these issues that we hear least of all any readiness on the part of the American side and NATO to come to an agreement.”

He did not choose the year 1997 by chance. That was the year of the “NATO-Russia Founding Act,” which in the Clinton Administration’s phrasing envisioned “an enduring and robust partnership between the Alliance and Russia.” The agreement made clear, the State Department said at the time, that Russia did not have a veto over alliance decisions and that NATO membership would “remain open to all emerging European democracies.”

Since then, 15 nations have joined the NATO alliance, over Russia’s increasingly strident objections. And while there is little chance that Ukraine would qualify for membership for years to come, Mr. Putin has made clear that it is not enough to simply provide an assurance that Ukraine, which he considers part of the heart of the old Soviet empire, would never join NATO.

Mr. Putin also wants to ensure that the West’s arms and troops are banished from the former Soviet states. The fear among Western officials is that any such retreat would endanger those democracies, and enable Mr. Putin to amp up his strategy of intimidation — via threat of invasion, election manipulation, cyberattack or other forms of coercion.

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

A measured approach. President Biden has said he is seeking a stable relationship with Russia. So far, his administration is focusing on maintaining a dialogue with Moscow, while seeking to develop deterrence measures in concert with European countries.

Mr. Ryabkov said on Sunday that he was intent on negotiating “dynamically, without pauses,” to prevent the West from “putting the brakes on all this and burying it in endless discussions.” Which, of course, is exactly what Washington and its European allies would like to do: slow down the process while they try to negotiate a withdrawal of the 100,000 or so Russian troops now massing on three sides of Ukraine.

Mr. Putin, Pentagon strategists believe, knows his window is limited: His battalions can only mount a major invasion in the depths of winter, when the ground is frozen enough roll tanks and armored personnel carriers across the border. By April, mud season sets in.

So the question hovering over the Geneva talks and two subsequent meetings this week — between Russia and NATO on Wednesday, and a gathering of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes Ukraine) on Thursday — is whether Mr. Putin is looking for a solution or a pretext for invasion.

Mr. Biden’s aides say the United States wants a solution, but not at the price of allowing encroachments on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, or reductions in American troop levels. On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken opened the door to a possible revival of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, abandoned by the Trump administration in 2019, and an agreement on reciprocal limits on where troops could be deployed and exercises conducted.

Mr. Blinken also said there was room for a renewing an old agreement that kept conventional forces far from borders when they conducted exercises; that might reduce the fear of a sudden invasion of Ukraine while also alleviating Russia’s security concerns. “Those are certainly things that can be revisited if — if Russia is serious about doing it.” Mr. Blinken said.

Privately, American officials have expressed doubts that Mr. Putin is interested. Mulling his legacy and his desire to reverse what he contends were years in which Russia was disrespected and encircled, Mr. Putin is unlikely to be satisfied with agreements that merely restore the status quo of recent years.

The worry among officials is that Russia is going through the motions of this week’s diplomacy only to declare that its concerns have not been addressed — and that Mr. Putin will attempt to seize more of Eastern Ukraine, or carry out cyber or other attacks to cripple the government in Kyiv.

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