Whoa! Could this mean that reports of the death of U.S.-Russia security talks are greatly exaggerated? What about the impasse, the deadlock? Might it mean no Russian invasion of Ukraine – at least not yet?
Actually, figuring out what the planned bilateral talks Friday in Geneva mean requires no PhD in political science. Nevertheless, the notion is so alien to consumers of the corporate media that one can, I suppose, give the New York Times credit for admitting, matter-of-factly:
"[The fact] that Mr. Lavrov [Russia’s foreign minister] will meet with [Secretary of State] Mr. Blinken on Friday indicates that Russia is prepared for at least one more round of diplomacy."
In the same obvious vein, the Washington Post quoted a "senior State Department official" (probably Blinken himself) explaining that the planned meeting on Friday shows that "diplomacy is not dead…We are prepared to continue to engage with Russia on security issues in a meaningful, reciprocal dialogue. We will see this Friday if Russia is prepared to do the same."
So, can we be somewhat hopeful that war can be avoided? Not so fast.
Don’t get your hopes up. The editors at the Washington Post and elsewhere were careful to avoid suggesting that there is much possibility that peace might be given a chance – despite the miraculous resurrection of talks that were said to be dead and buried for a few days. Tuesday evening the Post headlined its web version of the story: "Blinken to meet Russian counterpart as White House warns Moscow could attack Ukraine ‘at any point’. That awkwardly balanced headline was changed overnight to "Ukraine invasion seen as looming", and the new headline sat atop the same article, which ran as the page-one lead in the print edition Wednesday morning.
As Blinken departed Tuesday evening to confer with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday, and with his German counterpart and French and British diplomats Thursday, strident warnings came from Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki:
"President Putin has created this crisis by amassing 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. This includes moving Russian forces into Belarus recently for joint exercises and conducting additional exercises on Ukraine’s eastern border.
"So, let’s be clear: Our view is this is an extremely dangerous situation. We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack in Ukraine.
"And what Secretary Blinken is going to go do is highlight very clearly there is a diplomatic path forward. It is the choice of President Putin and the Russians to make whether they are going to suffer severe economic consequences or not."
Bad Cop, Good Cop
So with Jen Psaki and vigilant editors at the Washington Post and their corporate-media colleagues playing bad cop, Secretary of State Tony Blinken is freer to assume the role of good cop with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Friday in Geneva. And, as Blinken himself has emphasized in his more sober moments, the U.S. has put a major "quid" on the table. The key question appears to be whether it will be a significant enough quid to get substantive talks started and an eventual "quo" from Russia. This, I believe, will be a key subject of discussion this Friday in Geneva.
For background, readers can refer to earlier Antiwar.com articles, among them:
- Peeking Past the Pall Put Over Arms Talks With Russia
- US-Russia Talk About Where Not To Place Missiles
- Putin’s Quid: No Offensive Missiles in ‘ABM’ Sites
When was Blinken struck – like Paul on the road to Damascus – by the revelation that there was indeed a negotiating path that could interest the Russians? Blinken made his conversion clear just before the bilateral talks began on Jan. 10 in Geneva. While it took him 10 days to get religion, so to speak, he was loud and clear on the Jan. 9 Sunday talk shows, in picking up, and ringing changes, on President Biden’s assurance to Putin on Dec. 30 that "Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine." [Emphasis added.].
Appearing on several Sunday TV programs, Blinken said he thought there was room for negotiation in the talks about to take place and he opened the door to a possible revival of a treaty abandoned by the Trump administration and to mutual limits on where troops could be deployed and exercises conducted.
As the New York Times reported,
"Mr. Blinken raised the possibility of reviving the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the deployment, in Europe or in Russia, of medium-range nuclear missiles. Both the Obama and Trump administrations accused Moscow of violating the accord, and the United States left the treaty in 2019.
‘There may be ground for renewing that,’’ he said on ABC’s ‘This Week.’
"And Mr. Blinken raised the idea of revising an agreement on the deployment of conventional forces in Europe that could keep military exercises far from borders – and thus reduce the fear that an exercise could become the leaping-off point for an invasion. ‘Those are certainly things that can be revisited if – if Russia is serious about doing it,’ he said."
Declaratively, the Kremlin is proposing talks that cover much more than that particular issue. At the same time, the deployment of US "offensive strike missiles" capable of knocking out part of Russia’s strategic forces is a key issue preoccupying President Putin – understandably, as we discussed several days ago.
The Russian "Quo"
If the two sides can slide into substantive negotiations by biting off and addressing the "offensive strike missiles" issue, and dealing with it seriously, there is the prospect of real progress in addressing other concerns on both sides. As for what Russia can readily offer, it is a reduction/withdrawal of what has been painted as a formidable force near Ukraine, ready to invade. From the first report (on Dec. 3, 2021) in the Washington Post, based of course on "intelligence sources," that Putin planned to invade Ukraine with 175,000 troops this month or next, it seemed clear what was afoot.
No sane country would invade Ukraine today. But the hyperbolic way in which the threat of a Russian invasion has become the coin of the realm, Biden and Blinken can always claim credit for preventing the worst from Russia. This thought is not new.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).