US-Russia Talks May Be the Last Chance

It’s crunch time in Russia-U.S. relations. High-level talks starting Monday will determine the shape of world security for decades to come, observes Tony Kevin.

The Kremlin, Moscow. (Pavel Kazachkov/Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Tony Kevin
Pearls and Irritations 

On Monday, vital Russia-U.S. talks will start in Geneva. Russia’s delegation will be headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and the U.S. by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

These are ‘precursor’ negotiations – ‘talks about talks’, in the old strategic arms limitation treaties (SALT) terminology. Russia is driving the pace. The U.S. is in reactive mode, trying unsuccessfully to slow things down, to trim Russia’s sails. So far they are not succeeding.

Russia’s best-case scenario for Monday is this:  Successful precursor talks will be followed soon after by substantive, detailed foreign minister level negotiations, led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with participation of top military brass from both sides.

Russia is seeking detailed U.S.-Russia agreements on mutual security guarantees in Europe.

Unusually, Russian drafts of these agreements were handed over by Russia to the U.S. and at the same time made public on Dec. 17. Russia will want to achieve these solemn written mutual commitments, as well-summarized by Patrick Lawrence in Consortium News on  Dec. 28:

  • NATO will cease all efforts to expand eastward, notably into Ukraine and Georgia.
  • NATO guarantees that it will not deploy missile batteries in nations bordering Russia.
  • An end to NATO military and naval exercises in nations and seas bordering Russia.
  • The effective restoration of the treaty covering intermediate-range nuclear weapons. The U.S. abandoned the INF pact in August 2019.
  • An ongoing East-West security dialogue.

These desired agreements would be backed up by early NATO-Russia negotiations in Brussels to achieve corresponding agreements at that level. Finally, the two presidents would formally seal the deal.

Russia’s worst-case scenario: that if the U.S. fails to negotiate towards this complete package – if the U.S. tries in its usual way to equivocate, delay, or cherry-pick Russia’s proposed deal – Russia will terminate the talks.

Coldest War

Russia-U.S. and Russia-NATO relations would then enter the deepest of deep freezes since the worst years of Cold War One. Russia would focus its economic and diplomatic resources entirely on relations with the East and South – backstopped by the Belt and Road Initiative of its reliable friend China. Russia would effectively stop trying to dialogue with U.S. and NATO Europe and call the U.S. bluff on enhanced sanctions. 

On the now highly militarized Russia-NATO frontier, armies, navies and tactical intermediate range missile forces (sufficient to destroy most of Europe and European Russia) would confront each other. Risks of East-West war by provocation or accident would be far greater than in the years 1989-2014, before the sharp deterioration in East-West relations brought about by the U.S.-backed, 2014 Ukraine coup.

Clashes in Kiev during Feb. 2014 coup. (Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/ Commons)

Time Running Out

These present talks instigated by Russia are thus really the Last Chance Saloon: the last opportunity maybe for decades to pursue relaxation of East-West tensions – ‘détente’, in the old, nearly forgotten word of late Cold War One. Russia has had enough of years of creeping security deterioration and has drawn its red lines.

These are not in my view ‘ultimatums’ though they do demand major military pullbacks by the U.S. and NATO not matched by Russia, because almost all Russian forces are within Russian territory. In my view these proposed written agreements would enhance European and global security if achieved.

In 2021, Russia decided that it has had enough of decades of Western duplicity and creeping aggression, as persuasively analyzed by Marshall Auerback in The Scrum, Dec. 1, 2021.

Russia has seen how under successive U.S. presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden, a strategically destructive pattern of U.S. and NATO behavior had emerged since 1999, when President Bill Clinton welshed on the 1989-91 agreements between Reagan and George H.W. Bush with Gorbachev, that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe following the reunification of Germany. Though there was no formal written treaty as such, subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were well founded in numerous written contemporaneous memcons and telcons (formal written records of conversations) at the highest levels. 

As the West offered soothing words and prevarications, NATO expanded, first with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1999. There were further large expansions in 2004 and 2009, bringing NATO right up against Russia’s Western frontiers. Provocatively, NATO then listed Ukraine and Georgia as candidates for NATO membership.

The West successfully engineered an anti-Russia ‘colour revolution’ in Ukraine in 2014 and nearly succeeded in doing so in Belarus in 2020. It continued even to try to subvert Russia itself through lavish funding of anti-government human rights NGOs. Military and naval maneuvers and build-ups continued on Russia’s Western approaches.

An angry Russia saw every expansion and interference as Western betrayals and as violations of its sovereignty and strategic depth.  Russia was initially too weak to do anything about it. As Putin rebuilt Russian strength and morale, Russia began to fight back: first in Georgia in 2008, then in Crimea and East Ukraine in 2014, and in Belarus since 2020. 

Chinese Backing

World events have now decisively turned in Russia’s favor. The global strategic balance is shifting. China firmly has Russia’s back, as seen in recent statements by President Xi Jinping and China’s Foreign Minister. China has repelled Western regime-change pressures in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and around Taiwan. Iran has joined the Belt and Road initiative. The West was expelled from Afghanistan. Syria has somewhat stabilized.

Russia and China see now that they are stronger against their common Western adversary if they stand together.  Important non-Western powers and groupings such as India, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN are quietly adjusting their diplomacy to suit. The Quad is dead in the water, and AUKUS is a diplomatic joke.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin during visit to Moscow in 2019. (Kremlin)

In publishing these draft treaty texts, Russia is appealing to the world outside the Atlantic alliance to see that its cause is just, and in accordance with the five principles of peaceful coexistence proposed by China to the non-aligned world in 1954.

These five principles as articulated by Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai first appeared in the Sino–Indian Agreement signed in April 1954, and subsequently at the Bandung Conference of non-aligned nations, which Indonesia hosted one year later. These principles are mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in the internal affairs of others, equality for shared benefit, and peaceful coexistence.  These are very much the stated principles of current Russian foreign policy.

Quite suddenly, the West is on the diplomatic defensive. Its years of salami-slice aggression against Russia and China are now coming to an end.

For years since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West used the vital consensus agreed by Reagan and Gorbachev, that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, as cover for creeping aggression in Eastern Europe, violating and weakening Russia’s sphere of security.

Now, with the Russian initiative last week for the U.N. Security Council permanent five members to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev doctrine, with which the Western nuclear powers had perforce to agree, the tables have been turned.

Putin is in effect telling the West now: We all agree that none of us can allow military conflict between us to escalate to nuclear war.  But we and China are strong enough now to defeat you in non-nuclear conflicts close to our borders,  if you should be foolish enough to instigate such conflicts. These are the military facts of the matter: Russia could easily occupy Ukraine and China could easily occupy Taiwan. And you, the U.S. and NATO, could not stop this without risking nuclear war.

Putin has no wish to invade Ukraine but he is now determined to stop the erosion of Russia’s security. The new harder and more confident tone in Russian diplomatic language is unmistakable.  A confused West has not yet worked out how to respond. Urgent talks have taken place between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and between the U.S. and NATO. One hopes that Biden has been preparing the ground for a prudent Western accommodation.  A wise old owl, he can smell the coffee.

Putin is now holding the strongest negotiating cards. My betting — indeed my hope — is that Russia will achieve its demanded mutual security guarantees in Europe in the coming weeks.

International security – Australia’s security — will be greatly strengthened if he succeeds.

Much could still go wrong. There are troublemakers in the Western bloc whose careers depend on maintaining East-West tensions at just below the level of war. They will try hard to subvert and derail Russia’s goals.

In Australia, as in the U.S., there is almost complete public ignorance of this subject matter. Be prepared for massive disinformation in the coming weeks from the partly Pentagon and State Department funded think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and from mainstream media, hysterically whipping-up alleged threats of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.  This propaganda offensive, turning Russia’s defensive posture into aggression, is already under way, especially in the U.S.

Australia sadly no longer has the intellectual resources for an informed and balanced public discussion of these momentous developments. Ignorance and groundless fears of Russia prevail. Dissenting voices such as mine have been marginalized and almost silenced.

One might hope there is more reality-based knowledge in the national security community. But if there is, they are not telling the public. I fear that there too, ignorance and prejudice have taken hold. We are perilously leaving the strategic thinking on Russia to our Big Brother in Washington.

.Tony Kevin is a former Australian senior diplomat, having served as ambassador to Cambodia and Poland, as well as being posted to Australia’s embassy in Moscow. He is the author of six published books on public policy and international relations.

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21 comments for “US-Russia Talks May Be the Last Chance

  1. anon
    January 11, 2022 at 11:31

    Biden – “a wise old owl who can smell the coffee.”


  2. Zalamander
    January 10, 2022 at 21:53

    AUKUS was created precisely because the Quad is indeed dead in the water.

  3. Marjorie
    January 10, 2022 at 18:08

    As a sign of good will, the russians could offer to give them the test results of their new weapons. It would be invaluable to the US and the russians would probably be happy to let them know.

    Oh, an also ask at which conditions USA would accept to have russian missiles at their borders. If you don’t dare to ask you may never know.

  4. Realist
    January 10, 2022 at 15:55

    Clearly the United States has been far and away the main provocateur and aggressor in this tortured relationship with Russia over the last eight years since fomenting the coup d’etat against the legitimately elected government in Kiev. It has lied incessantly about events while Russia was pointedly insulted and treated with the utmost disrespect by not only President Obama but by his every successor and every other candidate for his office as if civility had no role in American foreign policy any longer. It has levied an endless array of economic sanctions for no other purpose but to damage Russia’s economy. It has expelled a legion of Russian diplomats, seized Russian property without compensation within this country and demanded American businesses cut ties and end joint ventures with Russian counterparts. It has concocted the most wild-eyed and heinous accusations, always without the slightest shred of evidence, that Russia has poisoned its own expatriots around the globe, aided and abetted Syria in gassing its own people in a civil war fomented by the United States, and wantonly shot down a commercial jetliner over Ukraine, just to mention a few of several such outrages, clearly all of these fantasies being false narratives which would benefit Russia not in the least and for which no logical motive was ever even proffered.

    The extremist regime in Kiev, ostentatiously modeled after Hitler’s Third Reich, has been armed to the teeth by Washington and encouraged to persecute the very sizeable ethnic Russian populations within it borders in what can only be described as “ethnic cleansing.” The data say that at least 14,000 Russian civilians in the Donbas region have been murdered by such action over the course of the last eight years. The Kiev government signed an agreement with, NOT Russia, but Berlin and Paris, called the Minsk Accords, which promised to grant the Russian ethnics in the Donbas, NOT independence from their onerous rule, but merely election of their own governors and some modicum of home rule. Kiev, always applying American ethics, morality, and bad example, chose to welch on its sacred word and, to this very moment, refuses to abide by its promises.

    For all this and more, Russia is constantly made the villain in an endless escalation of threats and slanders by the barbarians who rule from Washington. Clearly, any fool can see that Washington is trying to slowly but surely strangle the Russian state as a sovereign nation peopled by honorable and noble citizens, just as we hapless Americans, victims of our own leadership, are made to suffer. The US is fooling no one, not even its vassals in NATO, by saying one thing and doing another quite diametrically opposed to its empty contentions. The ruthless regime in Washington, wager of numerous bloody “forever wars” across the globe, is the absolute epitome of psychological “projection,” in which it accuses others of the very sins for which it is guilty. Behold, the biggest “meddler” in the history of geopolitics has the gall to condemn Russia repeatedly for “meddling” in our elections, and yet be unable to offer the slightest bit of convincing evidence!

    Obviously, the leadership of the United States of America (whomever that may truly be) does NOT want peace and good relations with Russia. Clearly it wants WAR in some form. It has already been wagging an economic war against that country with its never-ending series of “sanctions.” If Washington is still able to utter any statements that reflect any semblance of actual truth, please clue us in during this “last chance for peace.” Exactly what it is they think they want, because it is clearly NOT peace! Have the decency to apprise your own citizens and the rest of the world (because we will ALL suffer from your actions), exactly what it is that you are trying to extract through maximum application of pain and deceit to the Russian state and its people. Be sure and tell NATO as well, because I see no evidence that they understand in the slightest what they are signing on for if they go to the wall to enforce your depraved will. Maybe it’s a small distinction, but you are not “gods,” you are monster

  5. Hans Mayer
    January 10, 2022 at 13:45

    Could it be that the real intention of all this pressure on Russia was to push her to stop dealing economically with Europe and cease the delivery of gas, for example. That would leave the European market opened to western companies and politically under control. There may be the fact that the European market is considered off limit for the Russians. All this hardware put at the Russian border may not be a desire to go to war from the part of the USA, but a rather childish way to show off and bully back any Russian intentions to get involved with the rest of Europe. In any case, a lot of money is spend in muscle flexing by the American intelligencia which seems to have forgotten that the USSR was brought down by military overspending for a large part.

    • jeff montanye
      January 10, 2022 at 14:34

      victoria nuland doesn’t work for the oil industry.

  6. rosemerry
    January 10, 2022 at 13:00

    A few errors to start with as Wendy Sherman leads the talks with Riabkov, and if Boorish Blinken is really to confront(!)Sergei Lavrov, I can already see a meltdown as the USA’s ” top diplomat”!! cannot mutter one word of truth!!

    Thank you for this explanation.I am Australian and am so glad to find a few good people there with some understanding and fairness and not following the same media assuming the USA is always correct.

  7. GBC
    January 10, 2022 at 12:40

    The only face-saving way out for the US is to propose neutrality for Ukraine. The difficulty is that it contradicts decades of NATO expansionism and hostility towards Russia. But it is the only realistic option for the West at this point. Anything else than quiet capitulation to Putin’s reasonable demands may well be disastrous. Are Blinken, Sullivan, and Sherman really so stupid that they’ll risk nuclear war? Decades of Cold-war propaganda has prepared the US population to blindly abide the new Cold Warriors. How many Americans still believe Putin elected Trump? And these are the supposed smart people–the Dems in the PMC/ centrist wing of the party. We’ve all forgotten or never learned how quickly things can get out hand. In the Cuban missile crisis, it was Kennedy alone who ignored/defied his military, and sought a negotiated end to the crisis. Does anyone think Biden is cognitively able to grasp the present situation? Does anyone think the Biden of 20 or 10 years ago would have had the intellectual and intestinal fortitude to do what Kennedy did? I’m afraid that, as with Iran, we may be one destroyed aircraft carrier away from nuclear retaliation. All just to save face. And the “proud and patriotic” brainwashed, pandemic-impaired American populace will cheer on our elites if they bring on Armageddon.

  8. January 10, 2022 at 12:21

    Watching CNN & MSNBC report on the talks, convinces me more than ever, they are US Military-Industrisal Complex Propagandists with so many SINS of Historical OMISSION, this world is in a very dangerous place with the US delusional belief in it’s exceptionalism!

    According to US Propaganda, it’s all Russia’s fault and the US is Pure without sin, acting in good faith.

  9. Jim Thomas
    January 10, 2022 at 11:21

    Mr. Kevin,

    As I am sure you know, “[l]eaving the strategic thinking on Russia to our Big Brother in Washington” is dangerous in the extreme. It appears that there are no adults in Washing. Neither Biden nor his team of State Department amateurs posing as diplomats act as adults. In fact, they do not practice diplomacy at all. All they seem to know how to do is issue threats of war and insults to the representatives of other countries. We saw this in full and embarrassing detail last Spring when Blinken and his fellow novices thoroughly embarrassed themselves, and us along with them, by insulting and attempting to lecture the Chinese diplomatic team.

    As you point out, Putin has made his (very reasonable) demands very clear in the Russian drafts of two agreements, one between the U.S. and Russia, the other between NATO and Russia. I do not think the Russian delegation will tolerate any more threats and lectures from the U.S. representatives. This is a very dangerous situation which has been created solely by U.S. aggression. As usual, the U.S. public is ignorant of that fact since they have been told by the lying MSM that it is due to “Russian aggression”. I fear that the damn fools in Washington are going to get all of us killed.

  10. Andre Lebedev
    January 10, 2022 at 10:57

    Arguably neither side is a white dove in this affair, but holding both a Russian and a US passport, I want to be hopeful for an agreement, and yet having read the press on both sides, I’m not hopeful at all. Hiding behind the phrase “NATO is a defense alliance” the US shows no interest in hearing what the Russian side has to say.

    • David Otness
      January 10, 2022 at 15:26

      This is the West’s doing, from A to Z. And since not only 1993 when Clinton followed his orders setting this current train wreck in motion, but from long term strategic planning for the West (big banking houses in particular) first lusted after all of Russia’s—and then the USSR’s vast resources and territory, ala Sir Halford MacKinder in the opening years of the 20th century….
      Looking deeper into who started both World Wars, thence the Cold War, (refer to Churchill’s “Operation Unthinkable,”) and then let us debate who actually sought peace (white dove) in the aftermath and wreckage of WW II. The U.S. had a third nuclear bomb ready for Japan as I’ve heard it. If left to generals like Curtis LeMay and “Bomber” Harris, that bomb along with many other nukes would have likely found their way to Moscow and many other Soviet targets before 1946, imo. Apparently even Harry Truman or some wise counselors to him thought that 3rd A-bomb on Japan and a U.S.-Brit-German invasion of the USSR in 1945 a bit too much ‘exceptional’ considering all the world of humanity had been put through beginning seriously in 1939.

  11. January 10, 2022 at 10:39

    Apparently the biz network opposed to the CCP hardliners are going to push for Taywan invasion in order to crash China Presidency. The US might be deeply engulfed in the chaos leavin space for Russia to expand in Europe.

  12. TimN
    January 10, 2022 at 07:33

    Biden is “a wise old owl,” eh? No, he’s not. As David Lawrence pointed out a few weeks ago, he’s actually stupid. And with his dementia, it’s very likely some unreformed neocon is pulling his strings. And, sending that imbecile Jake Sullivan to start things off does not bode well. Another commenter above points out that the US will likely throw a tantrum. Sullivan is the boy to do it. First he’ll probably lecture the Russians on human rights, and his sycophants in the press will dutifully bray about the evil Russians and their duplicity. We’ll see, but I am not optimistic.

    • Marjorie
      January 10, 2022 at 18:37

      I understood that he had to be accommodated in an old, coffee smelling apartment with an old owl, wich would be appropriate for his condition, but I am not an English speaker.

  13. D'Esterre
    January 10, 2022 at 02:03

    “Australia sadly no longer has the intellectual resources for an informed and balanced public discussion of these momentous developments.”

    Neither has New Zealand, unfortunately. The media here uncritically parrots what comes out of the US and the UK media.

    Some years back, a now-retired NZ journalist observed that there’s no history of foreign affairs specialists in the media here. As a consequence, we the citizens have been very poorly-served – at least over all of my considerable lifetime – with regard to what’s happening overseas. Including analysis of our own governments’ involvement in international affairs.

    If there are any commentators with a dissenting view, we do not hear from them.

    I am also pessimistic about the likelihood of success in these talks. The Russian language has a word which translates as “not-agreement-capable”. It implies inability to make, and adhere to, an agreement, not just deliberate deception. This word has with justification been applied to the US.

  14. Sam F
    January 9, 2022 at 19:32

    Very well said: “There are troublemakers in the Western bloc whose careers depend on maintaining East-West tensions at just below the level of war,” and “Australia sadly no longer has the intellectual resources for an informed and balanced public discussion” just like the US.

    We must create a new structure for incorruptible democratic institutions, as I am doing for administration of the new College of Policy Debate (CollegeOfDebate dot com), which will protect all viewpoints in moderated textual debate of all issues, with no winners, providing commented and linked debate summaries to the public, with voluntary mini-quizzes etc. The CPD will properly inform and evaluate public officials and the voting public. It does not try to reach a consensus.

    The CPD administration must be incorruptible, using multiple redundant committees in all areas to cross-check each other, to provide the checks and balances that never worked under our Constitution, because modern understandings of organizational structure were not yet considered. This provides a better model for incorruptible democratic institutions of policymaking.

    • David Otness
      January 10, 2022 at 11:27

      Your link is insufficient. I tried it 3 ways, it leads to other programs.

      • Sam F
        January 11, 2022 at 19:45

        Thanks: CollegeOfDebate dot org
        Several names and extensions are used.

  15. rgl
    January 9, 2022 at 17:19

    I hold very little promise for these upcoming talks. Based solely on the fact that there will only be one adult in the room. The other party is a bawling, spoiled brat.

    Regardless of the correctness of the Russian position, America can be counted on to throw a tantrum. So, no. I do not think these will be fruitful conversations.

    I sincerely hope I am wrong. But the Red, White and Blue remains the Red, White and Blue.

  16. Dictynna
    January 9, 2022 at 11:55

    I wish I was optimistic about the results of these talks, and about the chances of the cold war becoming hot.

    I have the weird feeling something has shifted, and the ‘game’ has entered a new and more dangerous phase.

Comments are closed.